The six stories in Part I of this book trace the early career of Peter Benskin, a Scotland Yard sleuth with a public school background who, after a spell as a uniformed policeman, is transferred to the detective force. He permits himself considerable leeway in his interpretation of the law and, in one case ("The Momentous Blemish") even lets a murder go unpunished for what he considers to be the greater good for society.
Part II of the book, which also consists of six stories, chronicles Benskin's pursuit of and ultimate victory over a self-conceited master-criminal known only by the sobriquet "Matthew."
The original serial version of The Human Chase was illustrated by Jules Gotlieb. The version that was subsequently syndicated for newspaper publication in the USA was illustrated by Rex Maxon. All of the illustrations that could be found in the course of research for this e-book have been included here.
RGL offers this book to its readers courtesy of Gary Meller, Florida, who donated scans of the work from his personal copy of Shudders and Thrills: The Second Oppenheim Omnibus, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1932. —RG
THE mise en scène was a fitting one for the coming drama, the neighbourhood grimly suburban, one of those thickly-populated districts stretching eastward, but which never, even with the aid of tram and omnibus, seem to escape from the gloom and pall of the City. The street, however, in which the last desperate struggle was to take place between the police and Crawley Martin's infamous band of criminals, was situated well away from the main artery of traffic, and had undoubtedly seen better days. The houses were of the ten-roomed variety, straight-fronted, dark with smoke and weather-stains, but approached by steps and a short stretch of dreary garden. It was at the corner of this thoroughfare, out of sight of anyone who might have been watching from the windows, that Inspector Henslow marshalled his men. He listened to the striking of a distant clock and compared the hour with his watch.
"A quarter past eleven," he announced softly. "Martin should have been there an hour by now—time enough for him to have settled down. You are sure you saw him enter the house, Brooks?"
"It's a dead cert, sir," a shadowy form, in plain clothes, from the outside of the circle, replied. "We got on to him in the Three Crowns in the Mile End Road, and marked him to the door. Saunders was with him and Rastall—the man we want for the Highgate burglary. Eddie Joseph we know to be in the house too. He's got a bad arm and hasn't been out for days."
"And how many more, I wonder?" the Inspector mused.
"I can't exactly say, sir," the detective admitted. "It's a pretty sensitive neighbourhood here—too many enquiries, however carefully they're made, and the bird's flown."
The Inspector nodded.
"That's right," he agreed, "it's a bunch we want very badly, but it's got to be a surprise job or it doesn't come off at all. We'll see. How many arc we? Seven. That ought to be enough. You three," he went on, pointing to the motionless trio in the background, "with Sergeant Pryce, get round to the yard gate. When you hear me ring at the front door, stand to attention by the lower windows and the rear entrance. Directly you are sure I am inside the place, come in, but leave one man on guard. You understand?"
There was a muttered chorus of assent. The men drifted away and disappeared up a passage. The Inspector patted his hip pocket, tightened his belt, and motioned to the other two.
"We'll go round to the front." he announced. "Now the question is, which of you shall I take in with me?"
He looked thoughtfully at the two guardians of the peace, keeping step with him through the misty twilight which had already begun to savour of fog. Police Constable Druce on his left was a well set-up man with a hard, resolute face and broad shoulders, Police Constable Benskin on his right-hand, however, was of a weedier type, with much narrower shoulders, more sensitive, and less forceful face, and a couple of inches shorter than his comrade Nevertheless, he was the first to volunteer.
"I'm not afraid of a scrap, sir," he declared.
"Handle your gun, all right, eh? Not scared of it, like some of these beginners?"
"I won the prize at last week's shooting competition," Benskin confided—"good score too—ninety-five out of a possible ninety-nine.
"H'm! It isn't target practice that's wanted," the Inspector pointed out. "It's nerve and quickness."
"There isn't a man in the Force can draw quicker than I can, sir."
Druce, however, had a trump card up his sleeve, and he promptly played it.
"I took Billy Drew, single-handed, sir," he reminded his superior, with his eye upon another stripe.
"So you did," the Inspector admitted. "A fine piece of work, that! I'll take you, Druce. Give you a chance next time, Benskin. You've got to watch the gate. Something might come your way."
Benskin did his best to conceal his disappointment. "I'll look after it, sir," he promised.
The Inspector stepped out into the open, pushed back a rusty iron gate, and trampled up a weed-grown path. A moment later he was ringing the bell, Druce by his side—two stalwart, menacing figures. There was a delay of not unreasonable length, and then the door was opened a few inches by some unseen person. The visitors passed into the dark passage and the door was shut behind them.
Whatever tragic events were transpiring in that closed house, they were conducted, so far as the world outside was concerned, in silence. Police Constable Benskin, after his first sigh of disappointment, and a wistful glance at the disappearing backs of his superior and favoured colleague, concentrated upon his task. He watched the door fixedly, he kept an eye, too, upon the exit from the empty house beyond. At the same time, he maintained an air of casual loitering intended to dispel any suspicion on the part of passers-by that he was engaged upon a very important and particular errand. Ten minutes passed—twenty—half an hour. Every moment now he expected to see the door thrown open, the captured men hauled out, and to hear the Inspector's shrill whistle blowing for the patrol wagon. When at last the door opened, however—which it did with a quick, nervous jerk—the Inspector appeared alone. He descended the steps and walked swiftly to the gate.
"Come with me as far as the corner," he enjoined quickly. "We've got 'em all right, but there's been some ugly work, I'm off to Newly Street Police Station."
Police Constable Benskin kept pace with his superior for half a dozen strides, and then there was more "ugly work." The Inspector suddenly felt his arm gripped and the boring of something unpleasant into the middle of his back.
"Stay exactly as you are," Benskin ordered tensely, "or I pull the trigger. The slightest movement, mind, and you'll have six bullets through your body."
The Inspector seemed unwilling to run the risk. He stood quite mill.
"Now put 'em up!"
There was just a shiver of hesitation, the slightest added pressure of the muzzle of that gun against his back, and the hands came together. There was a click. Benskin reached for his whistle and blew loudly for the patrol wagon. His captive turned slowly and looked at him. In the venom of his expression, all likeness to the Inspector had now disappeared.
"An ordinary cop!" he muttered, in a tone of intense disgust. "Serves me right if I'm lagged for life."
"What's happened to the Inspector?" Benskin demanded.
"He got his," was the curt reply, "as I hope you will before long."
The patrol wagon rattled up. Benskin escorted his charge inside and seated himself in a position of security. They made a brief call at the nearest police station and sent reinforcements to the silent house in case they were required. Benskin, resisting his passionate desire to return with them, did what he conceived lo be his duty and conducted his prisoner to headquarters. The sergeant in charge looked up in amazement at the entrance of the two men.
"What's the meaning of this, Benskin?" he enquired. "Why, good God, it's Inspector Henslow!"
Police Constable Benskin smiled the smile of justifiable pride,
"Not on your life, sir," he rejoined. "That's the bluff he tried to work on me. This is Crawley Martin, the chief of the bunch we were after to-night."
The sergeant's eyes glittered. He motioned two of the policemen who were seated upon a bench to guard the door.
"If you've got this right, Benskin." he observed, "it will be the biggest day's work you ever did. Come along," he added, dipping his pen in the ink. "Let's have the charge and get him down lo the cells."
BENSKIN beard the whole story at Inspector Henslow's bedside, the following afternoon.
"It was Brooks let us down a bit," he confided. "They were as thick there as rats in a sewer. They rushed the back entrance and half a dozen of them got away. Whilst some of our chaps were after them, I went for Martin, chased him into a room, only to find five of them waiting there. One of them got me right over the head from behind, and when I woke up it was here, last night."
"Well, we got Martin anyway, you know," Benskin observed, with a little pardonable exultation.
"You got him," the Inspector said weakly. "A real fine show, that. He passed two of our men on the stairs and they never dreamed of stopping him. What made you suspicious?"
"Several little things. He took longer strides than you, for one. He hadn't stopped to change his boots, for another, and he started walking on the right of me, whereas you always walk on the left."
"A damned fine piece of work, Benskin," the Inspector approved, as the nurse came forward with a warning shake of the finger. "Get you promotion, sure!"
Benskin was hurried away and returned to Scotland Yard with a deep sense of satisfaction in his heart. Arrived there, he found on the call board a summons which brooked of no delay. Within ten minutes he was standing respectfully before the desk of Major Houlden, the Deputy Chief Commissioner. The latter leaned back in his chair and looked curiously at the young man before him.
"A very creditable performance, Benskin," he declared. "How did you tumble to it?"
"Well, what started my suspicions, sir," Benskin explained, "was the Inspector coming out alone, which seemed to me queer. Then we didn't keep pace very well. He walked on the wrong side of me and, though his voice was a very good imitation, it was thicker and throatier than Henslow's."
"A useful habit that, taking note of trifles," Major Houlden observed. "Now, we want to do something for you, Benskin. How old are you?"
"I have your record here," the Sub-Commissioner continued, glancing at a paper by his side. "Seems you were the son of a clergyman and went to a Public School. What made you start as a policeman?''
"Couldn't find another job, sir, and I liked it better than indoor work. I hoped it might lead to something else."
"Well, you're one of those lucky men who've had their chance offered and taken if," Major Houlden said kindly. "You'll get your stripe at once. Benskin, there'll be a money gratuity of course, and you'll be on the 'Watched' list. How does that suit?"
"Most flattering, sir," was the prompt reply, "but if I might be permitted, without seeming ungrateful, I had a request of my own to make."
"Make it by all means," Major Houlden assented. "I should like to exchange into the Detective Force, sir," Benskin confided.
The Sub-Commissioner nodded and looked momentarily thoughtful.
"Well," he admitted, "that isn't an unreasonable idea. It may not mean quite as rapid promotion, you know, Benskin. I can't put you over the heads of a lot of good men all at once."
"I quite understand that, sir," was the cheerful reply, "but if you'll allow me to be frank with you, I should like to say that I only joined the Constabulary in the hope of being able to exchange some day into the Detective Force. I've had a fancy for it ever since I was a lad."
The Sub-Commissioner studied his vis-à-vis keenly. Benskin's frame was not exactly an athletic one, but be was wiry and not ungraceful. His keen blue eyes and a certain boyishness of expression made him look younger than he was, but his mouth was the mouth of a man.
"You must have a nerve," he reflected, "to have tackled that murderous villain Martin in the fashion you did."
"I've had private lessons in jiu-jitsu and boxing, sir, besides the police instruction," he confided, "and, though I may not have a great deal of muscular strength, I am quick with my hands and on my feet."
Major Houlden nodded.
"Well, Benskin," he announced, "you're enrolled on the detective staff from to-day on. If you were a novice, I should feel it my duty to warn you against being led away by the glamour of what so many people seem to think is a life of perpetual excitement and adventure. Of course you know it's nothing of the sort. Three-quarters of the work you'll have to tackle will be as dull and humdrum, perhaps more so, than your present job."
"I quite understand that, sir," Benskin replied. "It's the other quarter I'm looking forward to."
DETECTIVE BENSKIN glanced around the small second-hand bookshop with the keen, practised eyes of a man who has schooled himself to search for hidden values even in the most trifling phases of life. After a year of tedious routine work, this was the first big assignment which had come his way, and this had come to him by chance. Burton, his senior, had had the case in hand until he had been stricken down by 'flu, and Burton, upon handing it over, frankly admitted that he could make little of it.
"This much I can tell you, Benskin," he had confided, after explaining the simple facts of the case, "there isn't a hope outside. I've done that part of the job thoroughly. If there's anything remaining in the shape of a clue to be picked up, it's in the bookshop itself."
So Burton had betaken himself home and to bed, and Benskin, after collecting all the information he could, made his way down to the bookshop. The young lady whom, through the medium of a diminutive errand boy, he summoned from the inside premises, in due course made her appearance. She was dark, good-looking, but somewhat sullen of expression. She frowned questioningly at the newcomer.
"My name is Benskin," he announced, raising his hat—"Detective Benskin."
"What, another of you!" she exclaimed. "There's been a Mr. Burton messing about the place for more than a week, asking all sorts of questions."
"Mr. Burton, I am sorry to say, is down with influenza," Benskin told her. "I have had to take over his work."
She looked at him with somewhat supercilious curiosity.
"Well, he didn't seem to do much good," she remarked. "Took up hours of everybody's time and never got a step forwarder."
"These things can't be rushed," Benskin ventured. "As a rule, we don't like to say much about a case until we have, at any rate, a definite theory. I expect he would have stumbled across a clue of some sort but for his illness. I hope I may be more fortunate."
"I should hope you will," the girl said emphatically. "It seems a rum thing to me that a harmless old gentleman like Uncle Sam should have been done to death here, not fifty yards from Holborn, and you Scotland Yard men who think so much of yourselves haven't been able to do anything about it."
"The case is not given up yet," Benskin reminded her. "You should appreciate the fact that there are special difficulties to contend with. Although, as you say, you are so close to Holborn, this street itself is a very quiet one, and, according to Burton's report, although everyone in the neighbourhood has been questioned and cross-questioned, not a soul was seen to enter or leave the shop within even half an hour of the time of the murder. That doesn't give us much to start on, does it?"
"I suppose not," she admitted indifferently.
"Do you mind showing me exactly where your uncle's body was found?" he asked.
She lifted a flap of the counter and came reluctantly out to him. The shop was lined with bookshelves, with two wings projecting at right angles into the room at the further end. She pointed to the space in front of one of these.
"That is exactly where he was found," she said. "He was lying flat upon his face with his skull beaten in. I hope I don't have to tell any more of you about it. It gives me the shivers every time I look at the place."
"I am sure you won't be troubled again," he told her sympathetically. "If I have to pass the case on to some one else, I shall be able to tell him all that is necessary. I have a little plan of the way your uncle was lying. The suggestion seems to be that he was struck down from the left-hand side. It must have been from somewhere about here."
He placed himself between the two shelves and nodded thoughtfully. The girl stood by his side, patient but gloomy.
"It is true, is it not," he asked, "that your uncle must have been called into the shop whilst he was putting the shutters up—that they were half up, in fact, when he was found, murdered?"
"I've told Mr. Burton all this," she nodded, discontentedly.
"Please be patient with me," Benskin begged. "I like to hear these thing sometimes at first hand. This is how I see the matter then: your uncle was putting up the shutters when some one entered the shop—perhaps without his seeing them at the time—and strolled around the shelves, looking at the books. Your uncle suddenly became aware that a probable customer was there—he may have attracted his attention by some means—and left the shutters to go and serve him. He came this way, and as soon as he had passed the corner of the wing of the bookcase which hid the murderer from sight, he received the blow that killed him."
"That's all right," the girl agreed, "but who did it?"
"The person must have been standing," Benskin went on, without taking any notice of the interruption, "just about where I am now. Presuming he knew what he was going to do, he would probably have been looking at some of these books to account for his presence here. Let's see if any of them have been disturbed."
He examined the shelves within arm's length of him. Suddenly he stretched out his hand.
"Here's one put in upside down—looks as though it had been returned to its place in a hurry too—no dust on it, evidently been looked at lately. The History of the Rosicrucians," he went on, reading out the title. "That's a valuable book, isn't it, Miss Mason?"
"I know nothing about the prices," she replied, "I expect you'll find it on the flyleaf."
He glanced at the title page and nodded.
"Forty shillings," he murmured. "That's quite a lot of money! Still, it's a unique book. Had you noticed, Miss Mason, that the volume was in upside down?"
"I haven't been near the shelves, I've had other things to think about," was the curt rejoinder,
"You haven't shown the book, then, to any one who's been in since?"
"I haven't been near this end of the shop at all."
Benskin handled the volume gingerly.
"It's interesting in a way, you know," he observed, "because it was probably taken down by the murderer. You won't mind if I keep it for a time, Miss Mason? I don't think it's much use looking for finger-prints, but you never can tell."
"You can have it if you want to," she answered. "If it's worth two pounds, though, I hope you'll bring it hack again."
"Of course I will," he promised,
He asked a few more questions and presently prepared to take his leave. The girl smiled at him sardonically.
"Well?" she asked. "Any theory?"
He shook his head.
"I can't even go so far as that, for the moment." he admitted. "By the by, can you tell me whether the whole contents of the till were taken?"
"Not a treasury note left, for instance?"
"Not one. We had to send to the bank to get money enough to keep the house going. There were over seventy pounds in treasury notes and cash. Uncle used to go to sales and always had to have money handy."
Benskin shut up his pocketbook and sighed.
"The facts so far," he acknowledged, "arc not very helpful. Still, we must do what we can."
"Oh, you'll hang some one, all right, no doubt." the girl remarked sourly. "Be careful it's the right one, though—that's all!"
BENSKIN admitted to himself, as he mounted the steps of the Free Library in the next street, that if the single clue he had unearthed failed him, it was extremely unlikely that anyone would ever hang for the Dunster Street murder. He looked about the place curiously, as he crossed the tesselated stone floor. There was a sprinkling of men, old and young, seated poring over books in the railed-off reading department, a dozen or so more at the counter, and a space reserved for ladies, well patronised by a respectable-looking crowd of young women. Benskin enquired for the librarian, introduced himself, and drew him to one side.
"I've come to ask you a question, if I may, Mr. Broadbent," he said, "with reference to this Dunster Street murder."
The librarian was startled.
"A beastly affair," he remarked. "I knew the old man well. He used to come in here often for reference books and to compare editions. I don't quite see what help I can be to you, though."
"It isn't exactly obvious," Benskin confessed, "but if you can answer me a question, it might turn out to be of some assistance. Can you recall any subscriber to the library particularly interested in works on alchemy and magic?"
"We could only tell, of course, by the books they ask for," the librarian answered, "and I'm afraid it would take the best part of a day to go through the records. One of our young fellows at the counter, though, has a marvellous memory. We'll try him, if you like."
"I should be very grateful."
They found the young man, a shock-headed, horn-rimmed bespectacled product of the modern Board School. He listened to what the librarian had to say and nodded understandingly.
"There's one young fellow," he confided, "takes out nothing but books on alchemy and occultism—comes here now and then and reads in the reference department too."
"Can you give me his name and address?"
"I can find you his ticket, I expect. He hasn't been in for a few days."
The young man disappeared for a moment or two and returned with a long, oblong strip of cardboard.
"The name is Richard Monk," he announced; "address, Ballater Buildings, just behind here."
"That likely to help you in any way?" the librarian enquired curiously, as he took leave of his visitor.
"It might," Benskin admitted. "By the by, if the young man comes in, will you take care that he isn't told about these enquiries?"
"Certainly," the other promised.
Benskin glanced at his watch as he left the library. It was just nine o'clock—not too late for a call at Ballater Buildings. Here, a stroke of good fortune befell him. The man seated behind the desk in the plain stone hall was an ex-policeman who had once been upon his own beat. The two shook hands.
"Have you left the Force then?" the porter asked, looking at Benskin's mufti.
"Not entirely," was the latter's reply. "I'm working in another department. Fact is, I looked in to make an enquiry about one of your lodgers here."
"They're a quaint lot. I keep my eye on 'em as well as I can, and I shouldn't say but they were pretty well on the straight. They're small clerks and tradesmen's assistants, most of them. Whom did you want to ask about?"
"A young fellow named Monk—Richard Monk."
The porter scratched his chin.
"Not much wrong with him, I should think, except that he's been pretty well starved lately. Writing a book, he always says he is, but it don't seem to bring him in much. He got hold of a bit of brass somehow last week and paid up the rent, or out from here he'd have had to go."
If, for a moment, there was a gleam of pleasure in Benskin's eyes, it was, after all, purely professional, and this was his first case of any moment.
"I don't suppose you'd be able to remember," he enquired, "what Monk's movements were last Thursday evening?"
The man considered for a moment.
"He most often stays in at night," he ruminated. "Let me see. Last Thursday, it was, be had to go out for an hour or so in the evening—somewhere about eight or nine, I think it was. I didn't see him come back, but I know it wasn't late because his key had gone again when I went up at ten o'clock. I know that was the night because it was the same night that the old bookseller in Dunster Street, round the corner here, got done in."
Benskin made a little note in his pocketbook.
"I don't know whether anything will come of this," he said, "but keep what you have told me in your mind, will you?—it might be important. The young man, Richard Monk, went out, somewhat contrary to his custom, between eight and nine o'clock last Thursday evening, and returned, you're not sure when, but it must have been before ten,"
"That's gospel," the man confirmed. "Is it worth a pint?"
"It is worth a pint," Benskin assented readily. "Come along!"
The porter took his hat from a cupboard, and the two men sought the hospitality of a neighbouring public house.
ABOUT an hour and a half later, Benskin climbed five flights of stone steps and knocked at a door upon which was gummed an envelope addressed to Richard Monk. There was a brief delay, then the sound of a chair being pushed back and the door was thrown open. A slim, scowling young man, in shirt and trousers, a pipe at the corner of his mouth, looked out at his visitor suspiciously.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
"A word with you, Mr. Monk," Benskin answered. "It had better be spoken inside your room, if you don't mind."
The young man stood grudgingly on one side, and Benskin entered, closing the door behind him, The apartment was barely furnished, and a small iron bedstead stood in one corner without shelter or subterfuge. In the middle of the room was a table covered with sheets of manuscript, and a parcel of typewritten matter, which had evidently recently arrived by post, was piled upon a chair.
"I don't know you, do I?" the young man enquired ungraciously. "What is it that you want?"
"I have a warrant for your arrest for the murder of Samuel Rudd, bookseller, of Dunster Street, last Thursday," Benskin announced. "If you take my advice, you will make no reply whatever to the charge. In any case, you will have to come with me to Bow Street."
The young man was obviously incapable of speech. He tottered to the chair upon which he had been seated and, leaning over the back of it, glared at his visitor.
"Murder! Who are you?" he demanded.
"I am Detective Benskin from Scotland Yard. You had better make your preparations and come along with me at once. The sooner it's over, the better. I have a taxicab outside."
Richard Monk stood away from the chair, leaned over the table, and began to sort the manuscript with trembling fingers.
"Just three minutes," he begged. "This must be done. My book. I've just finished it."
"I will wait," Benskin assented.
In less than the time stated, the loose pages were all in order and heaped side by side with the typewritten script. The young man tied a piece of tape around both. Then, turning away, lie produced a coat and waistcoat.
"Better put on a collar and tie," Benskin advised him, not unkindly. "The more respectable an appearance you present, the better."
The accused youth shivered in every limb. He went to a drawer, however, selected the articles mentioned, and dressed slowly. Then he reached for a hat and stole a furtive glance towards the window, which stood a few inches open. Benskin, with an adroit movement, slipped handcuffs upon his wrists.
"You mustn't mind," he explained. "You see, this is a serious charge."
Richard Monk looked down at his fetters with a strange expression in his eyes.
"You'll have to turn out the gas yourself then," he said. "Do you mind locking the door too and giving the key to the man downstairs?"
"I shall have to keep the key." Benskin told him. "Your rooms will be searched later on."
The young man shrugged his shoulders.
"There are only my manuscripts here," he declared. "All the material—you mightn't think it to look at me—for a great book. It might pay for my defence, unless I do the Eugene Aram trick and defend myself."
"It may not be necessary," Benskin observed. "The magistrates may decide that we have not a sufficient case against you."
Upon the first landing. Monk paused for a moment,
"There is one question," he said, "I should like to ask you."
"I have already told you in your own interests that I should advise you not to speak at all," was the stern reminder.
"Nevertheless," the other proceeded, clutching at the banisters, "I want to ask you this. I can't go on for a moment, anyway. My knees feel funny, What made you single me out as being the man who might have killed Samuel Rudd? Did anyone think that they saw me enter or leave the shop?" Benskin shook his head.
"You must not ask me to explain. We're not allowed to discuss these things at all. I will tell you this, though: I got on your track because there was a volume in Rudd's bookshop put in upside down."
"The Rosicrucians! God!" the young man muttered.
A MONTH or so later, curiosity tempted Benskin to loiter once more outside the bookshop in Dunster Street. The girl came out to the shop entrance, more sullen than ever, more untidy, thin, and hollow-eyed. She motioned to him and he crossed the threshold.
"You are sure you hung the right man, Mr. Detective?" she asked, a terrible bitterness in her tone.
"As sure as it is possible to be of anything in this world," he answered.
She considered the matter for a moment, her eyes like pools of sombre fire in their pallid setting.
"By rights," she acknowledged slowly, "I should have stood in the dock, not he."
Then a terrible fear came to Benskin, who was a brave man. He was no sentimentalist, and he had heard the death sentence passed on Richard Monk with no other feeling save one of natural and professional satisfaction that justice had been done. In those few seconds, however, a torturing thought racked him. His first case! What if, after all, he had sent an innocent man to the gallows!... He steadied his voice as well as he could.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"Richard was my lover," she confided. "We should have been married as soon as that book had been published. I told him I couldn't wait any longer; I told him that there were seventy pounds in the till. It was true that I was out that night, but I left the side door in the passage, which he used when he came to visit me, open so that he could come and go unseen."
"You were out?" Benskin repeated, with an immense relief.
"Yes, I was out. I didn't kill him with my own hands, although I've done it in my mind many a time. Richard did that, all right. But do you think I shall be able to forget that it was I who put the idea into his head? He didn't want to do it. He hated the thought. It was I who nagged him into it. What do you think of that, Mr. Detective—or don't you ever think at all except to get your poor prisoner under lock and key and chuckle when he swings? What do you think about it now, I wonder? Richard struck the blow, but there was never murder in his brain. I put it there. Here I am. Richard is hanged. Is that justice?"
"You could have given evidence," Benskin told her. "It might not have altered the sentence, but one never knows."
"He wouldn't let me. I went to see him. He swore that if I did he would contradict me flatly, and say that I was lying to shield him. He'd have done it too! Richard was like that. He was chock-full of horror with himself for the thing he had done and he wanted to die."
"I believe he did," Benskin groaned. "And now?"
The girl chuckled morbidly. There was a terrible light in her eyes.
"I've got half the money," she said. "He left it under the mat in the parlour. Do you know how I spend my nights? I light the gas and I go round every shelf in the place to see if there's a book upside down. That's because I'm going mad, you see! I'm mad enough now to kill you if I'd anything to do it with."
She turned away, disappearing through the inner door, slamming and locking it after her. Benskin slowly left the place. From that moment he felt that he should never think again, without a nauseating thrill, of the commencement of his career, of those suave compliments which had fallen to his lot for having tracked down the murderer of Samuel Rudd.
IT was a villainous night, and Benskin, abandoning his dripping mackintosh and umbrella, let himself into his cosy sitting room, turned on the electric light, and sank into an easy-chair with a little sigh of relief. He rang the bell for the caretaker, who was able, upon occasions, to prepare a modest meal.
"Mrs. Adams," he said, as soon as she had obeyed the summons, "I don't want to stir out again to-night. Can you cook me a chop or a fried sole?"
"I dare say I could manage it, sir," the woman replied, with a certain aloofness in her manner. "There's a young person been here to see you. She wanted to wait, but I sent her away."
"Who was she?" Benskin enquired. "And why send her away on a night like this?"
Mrs. Adams' lips were tightly pursed; her features denoted disapproval.
"It is far from me to be hard on one of my own sex, sir," she said, "but there was no mistaking the character of the young woman, and I don't hold with that way of living. We're all respectable folk here and while I'm caretaker none of that truck shall come hanging about."
Benskin wheeled around in his chair.
"Did the young person leave any message?"
"She did not. There's a chop in the house, sir, and a couple of haddock. I'll cook whatever you say."
Benskin made his choice and Mrs. Adams took her departure. A few minutes afterwards, however, came a ring at the bell, and, after a slight delay, she made her reluctant reappearance.
"It's the young person, sir," she announced. "If you'll take my advice, you'll speak to her on the doorstep."
"You will show the young person in, Mrs. Adams," Benskin directed.
The woman hesitated, but obeyed. Under his meek exterior, her tenant could at times be convincing. A moment later, she threw open the door, and, having ushered in the unwelcome visitor, closed it again without a word.
"You wished to see me?" Benskin enquired, rising to his feet.
The newcomer looked at him for a moment in silence. She was either out of breath or overcome with some emotion. As to her place in the world, without a doubt Mrs. Adams's suspicions were justified. Such measure of good looks as she had ever possessed seemed to have been washed away with the rain. A small and insufficient umbrella had left her partially wet through. There were streaks of rouge upon her cheeks, two roses drooped sadly from the side of her small hat, her shoes of some light fancy colour, sodden with rain, were a pathetic sight.
"You wished to see me?" Benskin repeated.
"You're a detective, aren't you?" she rejoined. "The one who took the Dunster Street murderer?"
Benskin frowned for a moment. It was a recollection which always disturbed him.
"Yes, I am a detective," he acknowledged.
"Queer sort of a do," she went on, looking around the room. "You might almost be a gentleman, living in Cork Street this."
"I might almost," Benskin admitted, "but what of it?"
"I've got a lodger," she confided. "He is nothing to do with me. I don't know anything about him—never spoke a dozen to him in my life."
"Well, what about him?"
"He's dead—been done in within the last hour or so—murdered."
Benskin stared at her for a moment incredulously. Suddenly he realised that she was in earnest.
"Go on," he enjoined gravely. "Tell me what you want to, but be careful."
"Oh, I'm not afraid," the woman declared. "I've got nothing against him, nor him against me. I just looked in to tell him I was going out, to see if he wanted a bit of wood for his fire—we're out of coal—and there he was—and my, such a state as his room was in! I had one look—just long enough to be sure that he was dead—locked up the door and came for you."
"Why didn't you fetch the nearest policeman?"
"Well, for one thing, I hate the man on my beat and I doubt whether he'd have come if I asked him—he'd have thought I was kidding; then I knew you lived here—I see you often going in and out—and I knew who you were—saw you every day at the Monk Murder Trial. I don't often miss one of them. I said myself that you wouldn't want a clumsy fellow messing about room and spoiling things. You can be the first person now to cross the threshold after the man who done him in—gives you a better chance, don't it?"
"I suppose it does," Benskin admitted. "I'll come with you at once."
With a sigh, he put on his still-dripping mackintosh and hat, postponed his meal, and drove to a small house in a street off Oxford Street. The woman led him up the stairs.
"Those are my two rooms," she pointed out when they reached the first landing. "That's his. Here's the key."
"Is there any electric light?"
"You'll find the switch just on the left-hand side."
Benskin turned the key, pushed open the door and peered into what seemed to be a wall of darkness. Before he could reach out for the switch, he caught sight of the faint outline of a man's crouching figure, partially warded off a blow, which if it had landed on his jaw would probably have broken it, and found himself crashing through the banisters. He swayed upon his feet for a moment, and would have fallen to the little hall below but for the woman who was with him. Shrieking all the time, she pulled him out of danger. When he recovered consciousness, he was seated upon the top stair, looking down at a little pool of blood. There were the broken banisters to remind him of his escape, the open door of the room behind, and the woman trying to staunch the blood from a wound on the side of his face with a none-too-clean towel. Below, the rain was beating in through the open front door. The cold wind which carried it across the threshold probably helped him back to consciousness.
"My God," he muttered, "was that the murdered man?"
"Nothing like him," the other answered. "There, you've stopped bleeding now. Feeling queer still? I haven't a drop of anything in the house to give you."
"I shall be all right directly," Benskin assured her. "Did you see who it was? Did you know him?"
"He wasn't your lodger?"
"Of course he wasn't. I tell you my lodger's lying in there, dead, with his head bashed in. That's the man who killed him, who's just rushed out. He must have been hiding in the room all the time and then I locked him in without knowing it."
"Would you recognise him?" Benskin asked anxiously.
"Not on your life. He'd a great grey muffler tied all over the bottom part of his face—nothing but his eyes showing—nasty, murdering eyes they were too!"
Benskin staggered to his feet.
"We'd better go and see if you've been romancing," he suggested.
He made his way unsteadily into the room and turned on the light. There, sure enough, upon the floor lay the dead man.
He was, after all, no heroic figure—a puny, undersized little fellow, dressed in a shabby, blue serge suit, who looked as though he might have been killed instantaneously by the one blow which had shattered his skull. Yet there were evidences of a struggle—evidences, too, of a search—although the apartment was meagre enough. Every drawer was opened and its contents had been tumbled out on to the floor. The mattress of the bed had been pulled out and ripped up. The man's pockets showed signs of having been rifled. Benskin, warned by his giddiness, fumbled for his note-case and produced some money.
"Get a bottle of brandy," he begged the woman—"the best you can."
She clutched eagerly at the note.
"Couldn't I just do with a drop myself!" she exclaimed with fervour. "I won't be a minute."
Benskin nodded feebly. He sat with his head resting upon his hand, taking further note of the confusion of the room. The dead man's face was of a not unfamiliar type—a puckered-up, monkey-looking face, scarcely English, yet without marked foreign characteristics. He was a man of perhaps forty years of age, who might have been a betting tout or a waiter in some small restaurant. Poverty-stricken, without a doubt, Benskin decided, as he noticed the hole in his sock, the frayed shirt, the general bareness of the apartment. Yet he must have possessed something of interest, for the search in its way had been methodical....
Suddenly Benskin's vague speculations came to an end. The detective's instinct asserted itself. The landlady had scarcely been gone two minutes, but without a doubt there was the sound of footsteps mounting the stairs—light, hesitating footsteps, as of some visitor who comes in fear. He held his head for a moment, then rose to his feet. He was feeling a little sick. The room had an odd trick of swaying, but he held on to the wall and listened. The footsteps were close at hand now, more and more distinct, yet with a break every now and then as though the newcomer were pausing to listen. He pushed open the door, and felt for the switch of the hall light which the landlady had turned out. He failed at first, however, to find it.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
The footsteps stopped. The little stairway was so near that he could hear the quick breathing of some one only a yard away.
"Who's there?" he repeated more loudly. "What do you want?"
For a moment there was silence, no attempt at any sort of reply. Then the mysterious intruder seemed to turn away in rapid flight. He heard the flying footsteps—the footsteps now of one in breathless haste—and the swirl of a skirt. Then, by the half-light from the room he had just left, the door of which he opened more completely, he caught a glimpse of the dim, vague shape of a woman in dark clothes. A rush of cold air came up the stairs—then the slamming of a door. At that moment he found the switch—too late. The hall was empty. There was no sign of the furtive visitor....
The landlady returned in triumph. She bustled into her own room and came out with the bottle of brandy which she had purchased still under her arm, two glasses and a syphon of soda.
"My, I can do with this!" she exclaimed, as she helped herself and gulped down the contents of a tumbler.
Benskin followed suit, less greedily, but with as much need.
"Tell me," he asked, "did you meet a woman in the street just outside?"
"Not a soul," she assured him. "There ain't many about either. It's a cruel night!"
"Some one has been in during your absence. She climbed the stairs on tiptoe—a woman it was. She would have come in here but I called out."
The landlady shook her head.
"You're wandering a little," she warned him, not unsympathetically. "That was a fair knockout blow you got."
"I'm not so bad as that," he protested. "Had this poor fellow any lady friend who used to visit him?"
"There's been a woman here once or twice," the landlady replied. "She's never stayed more than a few minutes, though. I caught a glimpse of her once—a quiet-looking body she was, all in black."
"How long has he been with you?" Benskin enquired.
"Five weeks—paid weekly in advance," she confided, helping herself to more brandy. "Name of George Mulligar—been a groom, he said, and looking for a job. A squeamy-looking piece of goods, but I never had anything against him."
"Some one else had," Benskin observed, glancing toward the dead man's head, which he had covered over with a towel.
"Shouldn't have thought he'd have been worth doing in," the woman ruminated, taking another long gulp of brandy. "Never seemed to have the price of a Scotch on him."
"What about that, then?" Benskin asked, pointing towards the mantle-piece.
The woman's eyes grew bigger and bigger. She rose unsteadily to her feet.
"My God," she exclaimed. "Flimsies! Banknotes! Good 'uns, too!"
Benskin counted them and buttoned them up in his pocket.
"One hundred pounds," he said. "That's a pretty good sum for him to have had, living here the way you describe. A pretty good sum, too, for the man who murdered him to have left behind."
"My God!" the woman repeated. "Him with a hundred pounds! Why, he's owing me a couple of quid now for meals, and a bit besides, for wood and coal."
"You'll probably get your money then," Benskin observed drily. "I'm going to take this for the present, but everything owing will be paid."
He turned towards the door. The woman shivered.
"You're not going to leave me up here alone!" she gasped.
"I am not," he answered. "I am going to fetch a policeman who will remain on duty all night. Early in the morning, the body will be moved to the mortuary."
She cast a covetous glance towards the bottle of brandy. Benskin handed it to her.
"You'd better get into your room now," he advised. "I shall lock up here, fetch a doctor, and leave a policeman in charge. There will be someone in the room all night."
The woman hugged the bottle of brandy.
"Take him away as quickly as you can," she begged.
"He'll be gone before you get up in the morning," Benskin promised.
BENSKIN sat in consultation with his Chief one morning a week later. Upon the table between them was stretched a grey muffler, an affair of cheap, imitation silk, and a small triangle of pearl-grey notepaper, on the extremity of which was half a letter, stamped in black, cut clean through. The Chief, after a leisurely examination of these objects through his eyeglass, leaned back in his chair.
"Considering that you had the run of the place for as long as you liked, Benskin," he grumbled, "and were first on the spot, you don't seem to have been able to pick up much in the way of clues,"
Benskin appeared in no way depressed by his Chief's criticism.
"Well, I'm not so sure, sir," he observed. "This is without a doubt the scarf the man wrapped around his face when he dashed out of the room and knocked me silly, and which he threw down the area when he turned the corner. I felt convinced he couldn't go very far along the street like that, and would probably throw it away, so I had a careful search made, and it was found without difficulty. You will see the ticket is still on it, so I concluded that it was only bought that night. We tried the shops in the neighbourhood and found the right one after a few enquiries. Here we were blocked a little, I must admit, but one of the shop-walkers was able to help us. He remembered a young woman neatly-dressed in dark clothes, with a bad cough, who called that evening and bought that, or a similar scarf."
"Did that lead you anywhere?" Major Houlden asked.
"Later on it did," the other admitted. "Perhaps I am putting the cart before the horse. I'll go straight to the money."
"I noticed you kept pretty quiet about that at the inquest," the Sub-Commissioner commented.
"I meant to, sir," he answered. "Tracing the notes was a piece of routine, but, as a matter of fact, it took a couple of days. They were withdrawn from the private banking account of Lady Lettice Moran on the morning of the murder."
"What, the girl who is going to marry the Duke of Rochester?"
"The wedding is announced for to-morrow. The fragment of grey notepaper you have there, I found just where the mattress had been cut, obviously in search of the letter or something of the sort. The knife had gone through the corner and left this triangle. We discovered without any difficulty that this was the colour of the notepaper commonly used by Lady Lettice. A few more enquiries and we discovered also that her maid answered exactly to the description of the woman who bought the grey muffler, and that she is suffering from a cough."
"Blackmail!" the Chief murmured.
"Precisely," Benskin agreed. "There's blackmail concerned in the affair somehow, but I haven't been able to exactly reconstruct the situation as yet, and I am afraid of making a wrong move. The fellow I want is the fellow who knocked me out. I want him very badly. I still have an exceedingly unpleasant pain in my jaw."
"What about Lady Lettice?"
"I'm going to see her this afternoon. The fact of it is, I've been afraid to approach her officially. The maid may be honest, or she may be in with the fellow whom we want, and if I called at the house from Scotland Yard, and she got wind of it, it would be all up with our catching our man, if she's in the plot. I've left it till this afternoon, on purpose. There's a small reception, with a show of the presents, and I have managed to persuade an old schoolfellow to take me in as an ordinary guest."
"That's a good move," the Chief approved. "Before you go, just let me hear how far you are able to get with your reconstruction. You've built the case up a little, I suppose?"
"Just as far as this, sir. I take it that Lady Lettice has, at some time in her life, written a letter of a compromising nature, that the murdered man had got hold of it and was blackmailing her, and that on the eve of her marriage she sent him a hundred pounds by the maid to be given in exchange for the letter. The maid parted with the hundred pounds, but for some reason or other failed to receive the letter at the time. The man may have told her that he hadn't got it there and that she was to come back for it in an hour or so. The blackmailer either had a partner, or there was some one else after the letter. That person, whoever he may have been, was hiding in the room when the landlady locked the door, rushed out as soon as I opened it, knocked me silly, and bolted. The maid had probably left the grey silk muffler on her first visit and he snatched it up to conceal his face as he ran down the stairs. The footsteps I heard when I was waiting were probably the footsteps of the lady's maid coming back for the letter. Of course, this leaves a lot to be explained, but it's as near as I can get until I have a talk with Lady Lettice. They tell me that she is a sensible girl, and if so, I shall hope to get the truth from her."
The telephone bell rang, and the Sub-Commissioner nodded dismissal.
"Good luck to you," he said. "Come and see me when you get back."
BENSKIN, only moderately at ease in the town clothes to which he had become unaccustomed, and amidst a crowd of people who were mostly strangers to him, was nevertheless obliged to exercise his patience, for Lady Lettice, who was surrounded by friends, was almost inaccessible.
"Can't do anything about introducing you yet, old chap," his companion pointed out. "What's the game really? Are you looking after the presents?"
"Don't be an ass," Benskin rejoined. "We generally employ women for that part of the show. What I want, as soon as some of these people have cleared out, is a few minutes' private conversation with Lady Lettice. Do you know her well enough to arrange that for me?"
"Why, you idiot, she's my cousin," the young man confided. "I can manage that all right and pretty soon, I should think, people are thinning out a bit. Nothing wrong, I hope?"
"Nothing in the least wrong," Benskin assured him. "I just want a little information that she can give me, that's all, and I'd much rather get it informally like this."
"I'll go and find her," Mclntyre proposed. "You hang about here. I won't be longer than I can help."
He reappeared in about ten minutes with Lady Lettice by his side. She was tall and dark, with deep-set blue eyes—a beauty of several seasons' standing. She came smiling up to Benskin and accepted Mclntyre's introduction gracefully.
"What about some tea, Lettice?" the latter suggested.
"Not likely!" she scoffed. "I know of something better than that. Come along, both of you!"
She led them to a smaller room, where a butler and two footmen were dispensing refreshments.
"Three champagne cocktails, Groves," she ordered. "Three of the best, please, in that corner."
She led them to a secluded place and by and by the few loiterers dispersed. Eric Mclntyre rose to his feet.
"Lettice," he explained, "my friend here, Mr. Benskin, has something to say to you. Will you give him just a minute, please? You can trust him. He's all right."
"Why, with pleasure," she assented readily. "What can I do for you, Mr. Benskin? You don't write things for the papers, do you, or anything of that sort?"
Eric Mclntyre, with a farewell wave of the hand, had drifted away. Benskin spoke as lightly as he could.
"No, I'm not a journalist, Lady Lettice, although I do belong to almost as disagreeable a profession," he confided. "You won't mind, will you, if I confess that I am connected with Scotland Yard?"
She suddenly stiffened. There was a drawn look about her mouth, a momentary flash of horror in her eyes. Then, almost as quickly, she recovered herself. It was as though she had remembered something reassuring.
"Will you let me talk to you for just three minutes?" he begged. "I am here entirely to help you if I can."
"You think that I need help?" she asked, with some return of her former manner.
"I think that you do," he acknowledged gravely. "Lady Lettice, tell me if I am making a mistake. You are being blackmailed, are you not, on account of a letter which fell into the hands of some one living in Mendel Street?"
"That is very nearly the truth," she confessed.
"You entrusted your maid recently with a large sum—a hundred pounds—to end the matter and procure the return of your letter. The maid parted with the hundred pounds, but in some way she was tricked. The man refused to keep his side of the bargain."
"That is quite true," the girl admitted with some surprise. "I do not blame Harriett. He was so horrible, such a vile person! What happened was that when she got there, to his rooms, he said that he must have another thirty pounds. She came back to me, and I managed to raise it somehow, but when she returned to Mendel Street she thought she heard some one else in the room, and she was frightened."
"I understand," Benskin murmured sympathetically.
"The letter was one which has been terribly on my conscience ever since I wrote it," Lady Lettice went on, twirling a very beautiful ring round and round upon her finger. "I was so weary, so tired of life a month or so ago, and there was a man who has always been more or less in love with me, only he is married. He was going abroad to Africa for ever. He wanted me to go with him, and one night, just before he sailed, I suddenly thought how wonderful it would be to break off from this life altogether. You don't know much of my family, I suppose, Mr. Benskin, but we are very poor—we really have no home, we are half dependent upon our friends and relations. I was utterly tired of it all. I was never in love with him, but we have many tastes in common, and it seemed to me that any change was worth while, so I wrote and said that I would come. Harriett took the letter, and this little beast, who used to be a groom of ours in Ireland, snatched it from her just as she was ringing the bell of his house. That very night, Hugh Rochester, the man whom I am going to marry, who has always been my dear friend, but who never gave me the slightest idea that he cared, proposed. I couldn't reply at first. I asked him to wait for a week. I would have given anything to get the letter back, but there was no trace of it. The man to whom it was written, sailed without a word from me, and every time I saw Hugh I felt happier with him. You may not believe me, Mr. Benskin, but this is the truth: I care for him now more than any one in the world.... Just as I was beginning to realise my happiness, this man—Mulligar, his name is—began to demand money from me. Every penny I ought to have spent upon my trousseau he had, and the brute always cheated. I don't know why I tell you all this, Mr. Benskin," she concluded, with a little grimace. "I suppose it's those nice blue eyes of yours and that sympathetic manner."
"My dear Lady Lettice," he said earnestly, "if only you people would believe it, to submit to blackmail for a single moment is the most foolish thing in the world. We preach that doctrine continually, but very seldom with any success."
"Of course I was an idiot," she admitted, "and yet, after all, it has all come right. I did what I ought to have done at first. I told Hugh all about it—everything."
"When?" Benskin asked swiftly.
"When Harriett came back after parting with the hundred pounds and not receiving the letter," she confided. "I sent her off to get thirty pounds from a friend, and then, all of a sudden, the ignominy of it swept over me. I couldn't bear it. She had scarcely left the house, on her way down to Richmond, when Hugh arrived, and I told him everything. He was the dearest person in the world. What do you think he did?"
"I can't imagine."
"He never said a word to me," she went on, a little tremble in her voice, and her eyes dimmed. "He just left a little earlier than usual, after having been sweeter than he had ever been in his life, and do you know what he did? He went straight—"
"Stop!" Benskin cried.
She looked at him in amazement, her lips still parted. "What do you mean?" she demanded.
The kindliness had suddenly gone from his face. There was something like horror in his eyes. He gripped her wrist. He held out his hand as though to cover her lips.
"Don't tell me what you were going to," he insisted.
She drew a little away.
"But, my dear man," she laughed, "you can't imagine what I am going to tell you, and tell it to you I shall. He went straight to that little beast's lodgings and he got my letter.... Why do you look like that? What's the matter?"
He sat for a moment or two in perfect silence. His despairing eyes were looking out of the window. There was a sick feeling in his heart. At that moment he hated himself and his profession. The girl, with some intuitive consciousness of evil, clung to his arm.
"Mr. Benskin," she pleaded, "please tell me what is wrong."
"You don't read the papers?" he asked. "You don't know anything that has happened during the last week?"
"Read the papers?" she repeated. "Never—especially these days. What is it? What do you mean? I have my letter back. Hugh has seen it. We read it together. Hugh himself put it on the fire."
He rose to his feet.
"Forget that you ever wrote it," he begged. "Forget that you ever had it back—for his sake."
"I will forget," she promised. "I mean to forget. It is the one thing I desire. But why for Hugh's sake?"
"Some day he may tell you—but not yet. Don't ask him anything about it yet," Benskin muttered, as he took his somewhat confused leave.
THE Sub-Commissioner was waiting for Benskin when he returned and eyed the latter's unaccustomed raiment with a smile of amusement.
"You're one of the most useful fellows we've got," he said, pointing to a chair. "Born to the manner and that sort of thing, you know! Not many of them could carry it off like that."
Benskin sat down a little wearily.
"I'm afraid you'll have to do without me, sir, in the future," he announced. His Chief stared at him.
"I am here to offer my resignation, sir. I haven't any luck, and the service doesn't suit me."
Houlden was a man of quick sympathies and he recognised the other's distress.
"Steady on," he enjoined kindly. "What's it all about?"
"What is your private opinion, sir," Benskin demanded, "of a foul, blackmailing little beast who steals a letter from a maid, hides in a garret with a prostitute for a landlady, sneaks money week by week from an innocent girl without any too much to spare, each time promising to give up the letter he holds, and each time cheating? Keeps her in a state of torture while he wrings money out of her to waste in some foul carouse."
"Filthy vermin," the Chief declared curtly. "You know what I think of a blackmailer."
"What should you think of the man who puts his heel upon the neck of one of them?"
"Shake hands with him," was the prompt response.
"Yes, and do you know what the law would do to him?" Benskin asked, with an hysterical tremor in his tone. "The law would hang him or send him to penal servitude for life. That's our b—-y justice! If you kill, you kill, and you swing!"
The Sub-Commissioner leaned forward. The two men looked into each other's eyes across the table.
"I begin to understand," he said slowly. "The law is a brutal thing sometimes. You've found out—"
"I've found out nothing," Benskin shouted, for a moment losing his self-control. "I've no idea who let the life out of that skunk. I only know that it was done, as the evidence at the inquest proved, by one blow, probably in a moment of disgust, and that the man was rotten inside, ready to die from shock at any moment. I don't know who killed him, sir—I never shall know—and I resign!"
"I'm damned if you will," his Chief replied, holding out his hand across the table. "We'll be human together. Call your other men off. We drop the case."
So the Mendel Street murderer was never brought to justice and the man with the grey muffler remained unknown.
There were times when Benskin almost hated his profession, when he felt himself filled with an intense loathing of the sickening details of the various crimes which he was called upon to investigate. The room in the Euston Road Temperance Hotel to which he had been hastily summoned, its barren disorder, the pitiful, unclean meagreness of the whole setting, perhaps rendered more terrible still by the sight of the lifeless body crumpled up across the iron bedstead, at first filled him with nothing but disgust. Police Constable Collier, summoned from his beat to take charge of the room until one of his superiors should arrive, looked at the matter, however, differently. It was a gala morning for him, whose taste for sensation had usually to be appeased by the arrest of a white-faced pickpocket or the stopping of a drunken brawl.
"Copped it fair, he did, sir," he remarked, as he pointed to the small blue hole in the man's forehead.
"Was he dead when they fetched you?" Benskin asked.
"Dead as mutton, sir."
The detective stood a little away from the bed and studied the room. A single cane chair was lying on its back, with a broken leg, a worn strip of linoleum was rolled up and disarranged. The bed-clothes were in disorder, a broken glass which smelt of spirits lay upon the floor. There was a handful of loose money on the mantelpiece and, curiously enough, a gold watch and chain, apparently of considerable value. Benskin, conquering an aversion from which he had never wholly succeeded in freeing himself, came a little closer to the bed, and examined the dead man. The latter was apparently of middle age, clean-shaven, wearing the shirt and trousers of a labouring man, but presenting many indications of a superior station in life. On the floor by the side of the bed was a modern-looking revolver from which one cartridge had been discharged.
"What about the doctor?" the detective enquired.
"The waiter's gone round for Doctor Jacob, sir. His surgery's in the next street. The woman as keeps the house she's downstairs waiting for you."
"Bring her up," was the prompt command.
Police Constable Collier departed upon his errand, and in due course there were heavy footsteps upon the stairs, and he ushered in a lady whom he announced as the proprietress of the hotel. Except that she was rather inclined to be fat instead of thin, she conformed very faithfully to type. She was untidy, nervous, and almost incoherent. Early though the hour was, she gave one the impression that she had already had resort to some alcoholic stimulant.
"Do you know the name of this poor fellow?" Benskin asked, pointing towards the bed.
"Mr. Brown, he called himself, sir. Don't know whether that's his right name or not."
"How long has he been staying here?"
"Three nights—leastways he slept here three nights. He hasn't been in much during the daytime."
"Do you know anything about him?"
"Nothing, except he's paid a week's rent in advance for the room. There's a couple of beers sent out for owing, and a bottle of ginger beer he had last night when he came in after the pubs were shut."
"Was he staying here alone? Had he any visitors?"
"None that I know of," the woman replied. "I ain't always about, of course, but there was no one with him permanent."
"Was this all his luggage?" Benskin asked, pointing to a shabby kit-bag from which the initials seemed to have been scratched away, and a cheap green canvas portmanteau.
"All that I know of," she assented. "He had a trunk when he come but he took that away the next day."
"Did he say what his occupation was?"
"Something out of work. He wasn't fond of talking about himself, but he did let that slip. Kind of clerk, I should think he was, or something of that sort."
Benskin looked at the body thoughtfully. "Did you hear a shot in the night?" he enquired.
"Not a thing."
"Do you know what time he came in?"
"Not an idea. I never spies upon my lodgers as long as they behaves themselves. Besides, I sleeps in the attic."
"Anyone nearer than you likely to have heard him?"
"Not last night," the woman decided, after a moment's reflection. "There's no one in the two lower rooms. These big, cheap hotels near the station take all the people."
There was a knock at the door and Doctor Jacob entered. He was a pale, weary-looking man, with hooked nose, thinning grey hair, and a tired stoop of the shoulders. He deposited his little black bag on the edge of the bed, greeted the proprietress, and looked enquiringly towards Benskin.
"Inspector Benskin of Scotland Yard," the latter announced. "I was fetched here by telephone call from the constable on point duty. You can see the cause."
He indicated the figure upon the bed. The doctor put on a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and made a brief but singularly cold-blooded examination.
"Bullet wound through the head," he remarked. "Close quarters, I should say. Case of suicide, I suppose. Wait a moment."
He unfastened the man's waistcoat. A tittle expression of surprise escaped him.
"What is it?" Benskin asked, drawing nearer.
The doctor pointed downwards.
"The clothes of a poor man outside," he observed—"but pale blue silk underclothes. Seems queer!"
The detective leaned a little farther over the bed. The doctor was right. The man's vest was of thick spun silk. He felt round the back of the neck. Inside was the name of a famous Bond Street hosier.
"Some one in hiding I imagine," the doctor propounded indifferently. "That's your job, not mine, anyway. Cause of death that bullet wound, without a doubt."
"How long should you say he had been dead?"
The doctor occupied himself with the body for a few minutes.
"About six hours," he decided.
He took up the revolver, shook out the cartridges, and held the weapon to his own forehead.
"Very simple," he observed. "I'll just do what's necessary, and then I suppose it will be the mortuary."
He bent over the bed once more and Benskin continued his search of the room. The gold watch had the maker's name in it, and there were the torn fragments of several letters which he carefully placed in the breast pocket of his coat. The markings had been removed from the few other articles of clothing. There was nothing in the shape of cards or papers by which immediate identification was possible. The doctor stood up and wrote a few lines in his memorandum book.
"Any fresh discoveries?" Benskin enquired.
"Nothing to discover," was the weary reply. "I'll give you the certificate when necessary. I suppose my fee—"
"That will be all right," the other assured him.
The doctor took his leave, followed a few minutes later by his fellow investigator.
SOON after the appearance of the evening papers, a middle-aged man, accompanied by a young lady in a state of considerable agitation, presented themselves at Scotland Yard, and were ushered into Benskin's room. The young lady, who was good-looking in a somewhat ordinary way, addressed him at once.
"Miss Hammond, my name is," she explained. "I'm private secretary to Mr. William Starr. He's been missing for several days. We thought he'd gone abroad, but we saw in the paper...."
She broke down for a moment. Her companion interposed a word.
"I'm Mr. Starr's servant, sir," he announced. "It's quite right what the young lady says. Mr. Starr went off last Thursday—we thought he was going to Boulogne for the week-end, but there've been a lot of people trying to see him since and we ain't heard anything of him."
"Of course it doesn't seem possible," Miss Hammond went on, "but when I read in the evening paper about a man having been found in the Euston Road, and the description and everything, it gave me quite a shock. I showed the paper to Furnell here, and he thought we ought to go there and make sure."
"Couldn't have rested quietly unless we had, sir," the man concluded. "When we got there, a policeman told us the body had been moved to the mortuary, and that we couldn't get in to see it without an order."
Benskin took down his hat.
"I'm sorry," he said to the girl. "You won't find it a very pleasant place to visit, but I will take you down there. First, however, in order to prepare yourself a little, do you recognise this?"
He produced the gold watch. The man turned it over in his hand with an exclamation of dismay.
"It's the master's, sir," he confided. "Was that found with the—with the body of the man who shot himself?"
"It was, and there is another thing—with whom did your master deal—say for his underclothes?"
"Beale and Inman in Bond Street, sir."
"Did he ever wear light blue silk ones?"
"Nearly all the time," the young lady cried.
"Then I am afraid you must prepare yourself for the worst," Benskin warned them. "The sooner we get it over the better perhaps...."
IT was an unpleasant errand, but brief enough. The girl gave one glance at the dead man's face and burst into sobs. Her companion looked away with a shiver.
"That's the master, sir," he announced—"that's him without a doubt. As good a one as ever I shall find again in this world; and what he wanted to do it for, when there's heaps of his friends he's helped himself who'd have given him a hand if he only hadn't been too proud to ask for it! I was kind of suspicious," he went on, "when he gave me my wages six months in advance, in case he didn't get back."
Benskin escorted them to the police car which was waiting and handed them in.
"I shall be staying here a few minutes," he said. "There are still one or two formalities. Will you give me your names and addresses, please."
The girl handed him a card and wrote the servant's name on the back.
"Was Mr. Starr in business?" Benskin asked her. Miss Hammond nodded.
"He was a financial agent," she exclaimed, "and company promoter. He's floated some wonderful companies in his time. Just now he wasn't doing quite so well and he seemed very queer and irritable. What Furnell says is quite true, though. There's plenty would have helped him if he'd been a little more confidential."
"You knew that he was hard up, I suppose, then?" The girl hesitated.
"I couldn't help knowing it," she admitted. "Everyone seemed to be tumbling over themselves to get money out of him. Will there be an inquest?"
"Naturally. You will have to give evidence, I am afraid, but as it is such a simple case, it will only be a matter of a few minutes. You will get your subpoenas in due course."
"And the funeral?" she faltered, her eyes again filling with
"The day afterwards, I imagine. By the by, what was Mr. Starr's address?"
"Number 7a, Clarges Street," the man replied.
"You are staying there?"
"Yes, sir. I've had no order to leave. I suppose someone will come along who'll look after affairs as soon as the news gets about."
"7a, Clarges Street," Benskin repeated. "Please be there in an hour's time, if you don't mind. There are one or two little formalities to be attended to, and I might have to go through some of his papers."
"I will be there too," the young lady promised; "I shall be able to tell you anything you want to know."
She spoke almost eagerly. Benskin took off his hat and waved the car onwards. His eyes were on the girl's face until the last moment.
THE Sub-Commissioner had never been more surprised than when Benskin presented himself in his room early on the morning fixed for the inquest and asked that an application for a formal adjournment should be made.
"What on earth are you going to say, Benskin?" he demanded. "What reason could there possibly be for an adjournment? It seems to me that never in my life have I seen a clearer case."
"I thought so at first," the other admitted. "Sometimes I think so now, and yet there are one or two very peculiar points about it."
"The long and the short of the matter is, I suppose," the Sub-Commissioner remarked, "that you think the man was murdered instead of having committed suicide?"
His subordinate avoided a definite response.
"I really am completely in the dark at present, sir," he acknowledged. "You know how one has to trust to instinct sometimes."
"Your instinct has been worth following more than once," the Sub-Commissioner allowed, leaning back in his chair. "Let's hear a little more."
"Well, I didn't like the doctor," Benskin confessed. "He seemed to take everything much too much for granted. Then there was another thing, When he took off the vest I saw distinctly on the man's arms the marks of hypodermic injections. The doctor too must have seen them. He made no remark, failed to call my attention to them, or to examine them for himself. He just took up the revolver and showed me how he thought the thing was done."
"What about the motive?" the Sub-Commissioner asked. "There's a very serious motive for suicide; none whatever that I can see for murder. The man had lost all his money. His bankers had called in his overdraft and his creditors were clamouring around him. The little cash he had in his pocket and the gold watch were untouched. Of course, he may have had complications in his life we know nothing about yet. Have you stumbled across one of them, by any chance?"
"I can't say that I have," Benskin admitted. "There is no doubt that he was on very friendly terms with the secretary, to whom apparently he had left anything that may be saved from the wreck of his estate. Beyond that, I gather that he led the ordinary life of a middle-aged man about town."
"How would his financial position pan out exactly?"
"Badly, without a doubt. I called upon the young lady secretary again yesterday to see whether I could pick up any further information and I must confess I was astounded."
"In what way?"
"He seems to have dealt largely in stocks and shares and property," Benskin explained, "without keeping any account of his transactions except what the entries in his bank-book disclose. Then, this last year especially, he has been drawing considerable sums of money from his bank just on the day before any of the great race meetings."
"But still," the Sub-Commissioner urged, "why do you want the inquest adjourned?"
"Because there is something behind the whole affair I can't quite figure out. I should like a little more time to enquire into his private life. We are taking it for granted now that he committed suicide because he was undoubtedly in desperate straits and there appears to be not the slightest motive for any one to have shot him. That may be because we know so little of his private life. A man living as he did must naturally have had enemies. I only want a few days."
"We shall be damnably unpopular," his Chief grumbled, "but of course if you really want it, we'll apply."
"I must have it," Benskin insisted. "I hate making myself a nuisance, but I think the coroner will forgive me some day—at least, I hope so."
"If he ever does," the Sub-Commissioner remarked incredulously, "I'll stand you the best dinner I've ever ordered in my life."
So, at the end of that dreary, formal function, which took place on the day arranged, a thunderbolt flashed into the court. The doctor's evidence, followed by Miss Hammond's, seemed so conclusively to point to suicide that people took scant interest in the case. The general public deserted almost in a body before the coroner addressed himself to the jury. Then, quite unexpectedly, Benskin got up in his place, and on behalf of the police, made formal application for an adjournment. The coroner looked at him in amazement.
"An adjournment?" he exclaimed. "But for what reason?"
"The police have had very little time to make enquiries," Benskin pointed out. "They admit that the evidence as to suicide is, on the face of it, conclusive. On the other hand, they feel that in view of the fact that a large portion of the deceased's assets have apparently disappeared, they should like an opportunity of making a few enquiries before the matter is absolutely closed. A man who deals in large sums of money without keeping proper books in which their disposal could be traced, is, as you must admit, one of the most possible victims for a cleverly constructed crime."
The witnesses, Furnell, the doctor and Miss Hammond, were all seated in the well of the court, together with a lawyer who was understood to be representing them. The latter rose to his feet.
"It has occurred very seldom in my lifetime, Mr. Coroner," he said, "that I have found myself in the position of protesting against such an application as has just been made, especially when it has been made under the auspices of Scotland Yard, but I cannot for the life of me see the use or the advantage to anybody of the proposed adjournment. A clearer case of suicide, I venture to say, was never laid before you, sir. Why should my witnesses be inconvenienced, the poor fellow's funeral postponed, for no reason whatsoever?"
The coroner cleared his throat.
"Mr. Ellis," he admitted, "I feel a considerable amount of sympathy with what you have just said. At the same time, it has never been my custom to disregard an application made by a responsible person on behalf of the police. The inquest is adjourned until a week from to-day."
The few stragglers in the court rose to their feet, and made towards the exit. The girl remained in her seat for a moment, her eyes fixed upon Benskin. The doctor, on the other hand, shambled up to him.
"I can't imagine why you wish to waste our time in this manner, sir," he protested sharply. "The whole affair is so simple. From the moment I saw the body, I realised exactly what had happened, and the whole of the evidence has only confirmed my conviction. Adjourn the inquest, indeed! I have never heard of anything so foolish! You police can't have enough to occupy yourselves with,"
"I am very sorry if it inconveniences any of you," Benskin replied politely. "You see there are just one or two more enquiries which should be made before a serious matter like this is concluded. The jury's verdict once given is final, you must remember."
The doctor hurried off, with a little grunt of disgust. Somewhat to Benskin's surprise, when he reached the pavement he found Miss Hammond standing by his side. She was looking a little pale, but she was quite collected.
"Shall I see you again before the adjourned inquest, Mr. Benskin?" she asked. "There are letters every morning which of course you can see if you like—nothing very cheerful so far though, I am afraid. A young man from the Official Receiver's comes in and takes them away, but I always open them first."
"I'll look around, if I may," Benskin promised. "I'm sorry to bother you all with this adjournment."
"You ought to know whether it is necessary," was the quiet rejoinder. "If it is, then we have nothing to complain about."
"It will only be for a week," Benskin reminded her. "I am afraid I'm rather unpopular with all of you, especially the doctor, but one gets ideas, you know."
She looked at him keenly.
"I wonder what yours is?"
"Probably a mare's nest."
BEFORE the week was up, Benskin received a call from Miss Hammond. She was wearing a little more rouge than when he had at first seen her and she had apparently used her lipstick freely. She entered the office boldly, as one who has a grievance. Her manner was, if anything, a little over-confident. Nevertheless, there was no concealing the disquietude of her eyes.
"I want to know, Mr. Benskin," she said, as soon as he had provided her with a chair, "why I am being followed?"
"Followed?" he repeated. "By whom?"
"That is what I came to ask you," she rejoined. "All that I know is that twice during the last three days I have started out to pay a visit to a friend and discovered that a person whom I have seen loitering upon the other side of Clarges Street has dogged my footsteps."
"That seems very queer," Benskin observed. "If the person annoys you in any way, I should appeal to the nearest policeman."
"Are you sure that it is not the police who are responsible?" she demanded.
Benskin looked at her with those very innocent blue eyes of his wide open.
"My dear young lady," he exclaimed, "why on earth should the police take any particular interest in your movements?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," she admitted, "but there it is. Wherever I go, this man follows me. Twice I've given up the idea of going to visit my friends."
"Why change your plans because you were followed?" Benskin asked swiftly.
The girl was momentarily at a loss.
"No particular reason why I should," she confessed, "but I don't like people prying into my concerns."
"Miss Hammond," he assured her, a little more gravely, "I don't think that anyone wants to pry into your concerns. At the same time, you must remember that your late employer, although his suicide seems to be a reasonable enough action considering the state of his finances, died under very peculiar circumstances. He was reputed to be a wealthy man. He has left behind him nothing but debts. He is known to have been possessed of considerable property, stocks and shares. There is no evidence at all, not even in his banking accounts, of how he has disposed of these. You are the only person who might have thrown light upon the situation and you profess yourself unable to do so."
"But how can I?" she protested. "Mr. Starr kept no books—his was a one-man business—he didn't need to. If he had kept books, as he always said, he would have been liable to income tax."
"Just so," Benskin agreed. "Well, I am afraid I can't help you, Miss Hammond. I should advise you to speak to anyone whom you are sure is following you on any future occasion, and find out by whose instructions he is acting. You must remember that Mr. Starr had some very heavy creditors. Any one of them might be interested in your movements."
Miss Hammond took her leave without obtaining any further satisfaction, and Benskin, as soon as she had gone, glanced through the report of her movements on the previous day.
THE adjourned inquest opened without any indications of the sensation in which it was to result. The jury once more viewed the body. Miss Hammond and Furnell, the servant, again gave their evidence of identification. The doctor's evidence followed, almost word for word to the same effect as on the previous occasion. The coroner, however, instead of at once addressing the jury, referred to some papers by his side, and one or two observant people in the court noticed a distinct change in his manner. He nodded to the sergeant, who threw open the door of the witness box.
"Police Surgeon Harding."
The police surgeon stepped into the box. Doctor Jacob, who was seated just below, started slightly and leaned forward in his place. The coroner addressed the new witness, and after the ordinary preliminaries, again consulted his notes.
"You did not at first examine the body of the deceased?" he asked.
"I did not, sir," the surgeon acknowledged. "In the face of the testimony of Doctor Jacob, who was called in and who is a fully qualified man, it was not thought necessary. I had two inquests that day on the other side of London."
"You have since, however, at the request of the police, made an examination of the body?"
"I have, sir."
"Tell us what conclusions you arrived at." The surgeon hesitated.
"I will admit the possibility of error, sir," he said, "but I came to the conclusion that the deceased had been dead for several days longer than the period stated, and that death was due to morphine poisoning. The deceased was obviously a drug fiend."
There was a ripple of sensation in court. News that something strange was happening, or likely to happen, spread like wildfire, and people came streaming in on tiptoe.
"What about the revolver shot in the forehead?" the Coroner continued.
"I formed the opinion, sir," the witness replied, "that the shot had been fired into the head of the deceased some time after death."
Silence was impossible. There was a babel of whispering voices throughout the court. Doctor Jacob, it was noticed, was livid. Miss Hammond was rubbing her face with her handkerchief. The trembling fingers of her other hand held a stick of lip salve.
"That is a most extraordinary statement of yours, Surgeon," the coroner pointed out gravely.
"It is the result of my very careful examination of the body," the police surgeon announced.
The coroner waved him away and his place was taken by a well-dressed, portly-looking gentleman. The coroner turned towards him.
"Your name is Doctor Marriott, I believe, house physician to St. Luke's Hospital, Euston."
"That is my name and position."
At this point, Doctor Jacob was seen to rise stealthily to his feet. A burly-looking man in plain clothes, who was standing immediately behind, touched him on the shoulder, however, and he resumed his place.
"You have seen the body of the deceased?"
"Are you able to identify it?"
"Certainly. It is the body of Sidney John Mason, who died in one of my wards last Thursday week from morphine poisoning."
The murmur of voices rose until the coroner was forced to tap sharply upon the table before him. As soon as silence was restored, he turned back to the witness with an exceedingly pertinent question.
"Can you account in any way for the body of one of your patients, who died in your hospital, and who should have been buried under its auspices, being found in a temperance hotel in the Euston Road, surrounded by evidences of another personality?"
"If my answer to your question involves no contempt of the Court," the witness replied, "I should say at once that the fact can only be accounted for by the existence of a cleverly exploited and carried out conspiracy. Mason's body left the hospital for burial at two o'clock on the day arranged for. A coffin was deposited in the grave prepared before three o'clock."
"You know," the coroner asked, "that the grave has been dug up and the coffin found to contain nothing but bricks?"
"Such is my information."
Three times the coroner was forced to appeal for silence. At last he rose to his feet.
"Gentlemen of the jury," he said, "your unnecessary presence here, as you have now gathered, has been due to a conspiracy with which another Court will have to deal. You are discharged immediately from the present case and relieved from all future services for two years. Any further proceedings in connection with the deceased," the coroner added drily, with a significant glance in front of him, "will take place elsewhere."
The burly-looking man leaned forward and again touched Doctor Jacob upon the shoulder. Two policemen appeared from the back of the court. It took half a dozen men to make a lane through which Miss Daphne Hammond, Doctor Jacob and William Furnell were conducted to the police van which awaited them outside.
THE Sub-Commissioner kept his word. He entertained Benskin that night to the best dinner his club could provide. The first glass of wine he drank to his companion almost formally.
"Benskin," he said, "the Chief desires me to present to you his compliments. You have done the Force a remarkably good service. All the evening papers have laudatory articles concerning the establishment, but we will see that you get the credit to which you are entitled. I don't want all the details. I've picked up a few already, but just give me an idea how you tumbled to the thing. Here's your very good health!"
"Well, it began like this," Benskin explained, setting down his glass and helping himself to caviar. "I thought it extraordinary that Doctor Jacob made no remark about the numerous scars on the man's body from the hypodermic injections, and then, too, I noticed that the body bore marks of the injections sometimes made at a hospital to ensure that death has actually taken place. Then all sorts of little suspicious things cropped up. First of all, the cunning way the man was supposed to have crept into hiding, and yet in the matter of his underclothes and gold watch left evidences as to his identity. Then there was the disappearance of all his ready money, leaving nothing but debts behind. I couldn't make head or tail of his bank-book, so I had a long talk with the bank manager who was very sympathetic, chiefly because he dislikes Starr. We arrived in due course at a pretty clear idea of the man's financial position. He'd been a rich man once, without a doubt, but he lost fifty thousand pounds in rubber two years ago, and that started him on this game. Whenever he got a chance, he paid in money which he received from various quarters to a bank account abroad, and as he couldn't build up fast enough that way, he kept on drawing large sums through his own bank and pretending he'd lost them at race meetings. All this time, of course, he paid nobody, and he entered into every speculation where he could get a few months' credit and draw in a certain amount of cash. In this fashion he drained away the whole of his assets and built up a reserve of something like seventy thousand pounds in hard cash, all deposited in the United States. As soon as I had arrived at these facts, I put aside all idea of suicide and worked upon a theory of my own, which turned out to be the correct one. I looked up Doctor Jacob's past and I didn't think much of it. I paid a visit to the hospital and discovered that a patient, attended by Doctor Jacob, had died there three days before of morphine poisoning and had been buried at a certain cemetery nearby. A few more enquiries and I discovered that Doctor Jacob was paying off some pressing debts, and was ordering in whisky by the case, instead of by the bottle, that two men from the undertaker's establishment with whom the hospital had a contract had been drunk for two days, and that Miss Hammond was dividing her time between buying a trousseau and trying to get down to Tilbury. It didn't need much more, you see, sir. Starr had thought the scheme out carefully enough. He had got hold of a crook doctor, spent money freely, squared the landlady at the Temperance Hotel—three hundred pounds, she got paid—and up to a certain point the whole thing worked out according to plan.
"And what about Starr?" the Sub-Commissioner asked.
"Well, we shall know in a few minutes," Benskin replied, looking down the crowded room.
An official-looking messenger, preceded by one of the club officials, was making his way towards them. Benskin, with a word of apology to his Chief, tore open the envelope of the note which was handed to him. He dismissed the messenger with a little wave of the hand.
"Starr was arrested this afternoon at Tilbury," he announced "He and Miss Hammond were off on the Ortana to-night for the South Sea Islands."
The Sub-Commissioner was very human.
"Poor rascal!" he sighed, as he watched his glass being filled.
THROUGH the silence outside of the brief hour before dawn, and the silence of the sleeping household, Gregory Dent sat at his desk and wrote. He wrote fiercely, with a spluttering pen, like a man who has burning matter in his brain, of which he must rid himself. In his travel-stained clothes—he had motored without a stop from a northern town—he seemed a little out of place in a study which lacked no possible touch of elegance. It was the study of a wealthy man and a man of taste, a man, too, who loved beautiful things. The two simple bronzes, which were the sole adornments of his writing table, were perfect in outline and workmanship, the pen with which he wrote was of beaten gold—a gift from an Indian nabob; the blotter was bound in silver scroll work which had once decorated the treasure box of a Burmese temple. Grimly and forcefully, the pen spelt out its devastating message. The man in whose strong, blunt fingers it was gripped never hesitated for a word, never paused to reread what he had written. It was the ruin of a once powerful and proud commercial undertaking which he was pronouncing, but ruin which, on the hard facts, was fully deserved. He pursued his task without faltering until its completion. Then, for a brief space of time, he leaned back in his chair with an air of relief; the sense of a task accomplished slackened the muscles of his body and the tenseness of his brain.... Presently he rose, opened a cupboard of lacquer work, brought out whisky and a syphon, helped himself to a drink, took up the pen once more, and signed the sheets he had written. Afterwards he turned over the pages of the telephone directory, found the number he wanted, and raised the receiver from its stand.
"Number 890 Mayfair," he demanded.... "Sir Gregory Dent speaking from Number 17a, Hill Street. Is that Miss Fisher's All Night Typewriting Agency? ... Good. Could you send me a stenographer round at once to Hill Street? She must bring a machine and do half an hour's typing on the premises. And— wait a moment—she can take a taxi and keep it waiting; but stop at the corner of the street, as I don't want to wake my people up.... Right; then I'll expect her in a quarter of an hour,"
He set down the receiver and for the first time read through what he had written. Apparently it met with his approval, for he made no change in any of the sheets. He lit a cigarette and leaned back once more in his comfortably padded chair. Outside, the silence of the passing night was still unbroken. From the far distance came the occasional hoot of a taxi, but in this little corner of Mayfair all was quiet. He rose again to his feet, walked quietly to the door, opened it, and stood for a moment in the hall. He was a large man, clumsily but powerfully built, with harsh features, redeemed to some extent by the softer curves of his mouth. As he listened the faintest of smiles softened out some of the hard lines. On the floor above Angela would be sleeping. Presently, when this self-imposed task was brought to a conclusion, he would steal up the stairs and listen from his dressing room. If by any chance she were awake...
He returned to his seat and presently the sound for which he waited arrived—the sound of a taxi drawing up close at hand and footsteps upon the pavement. He left his place and himself opened the front door. A plainly dressed young woman, in a long dark coat and round turban hat, stood there. He wasted no time in purposeless questions, but, with a little gesture imposing silence, ushered her into the study, and led her to the table.
"There are seven pages here of a very important report," he explained. "I want them typed with two extra copies. Afterwards each copy is to be put into an envelope addressed, the first to Lord Eustace Martinhoe, Chairman of the Dent Financial Trust, 32b, Bishopsgate, E.C.2; the second to Sir Walter Cranley, Bart., 14a, Scuddamore Gardens, S.W.1; and the third to Jacob Houlder, Esq., Secretary to the Dent Financial Trust, also to 32b, Bishopsgate. Have you those addresses all right?"
He drew several treasury notes from his pocket and laid them upon the table.
"I don't know exactly what your charges are," he continued, "but work at this time of night is worth paying well. I am going to try to keep awake long enough to see you out, but I am very tired, and if I should drop off to sleep, put the letters into the envelopes and deliver them for me. The meeting to which they refer is not held until three o'clock to-morrow afternoon, but I want them to be received several hours beforehand. Can you be sure of delivering them for me by ten o'clock?"
"Yes. I can do that."
"Good. Then if, by any chance, I am asleep when you have finished, don't wake me to sign them. Just put 'Gregory Dent' and sign them per pro in your own name as typist.... Take off your coat if you find the room warm. You had better put your typewriter upon this table. Allow me."
With quick and deft fingers she slipped the machine from its case and laid a little roll of paper by its side. She unfastened her coat but kept it on, and stretched out her hand for the copy which he offered her. She read the first sheet quickly; at the second she paused. Very deliberately she looked around. Gregory Dent had gone back to the cabinet and was searching for another syphon of soda water. Her eyes rested upon him for a moment, filled with a curious, startled expression. One hand was clenched; the nerveless fingers of the other barely retained their grip of the remainder of the copy. At the sound of a movement from him, she recovered herself with an effort. By the time he had found the syphon and turned around, she was reading page three with apparent absorption. When she had come to the end of the manuscript, he noticed her pallor and the fact that her fingers were trembling.
"You look too delicate for this night work," he said, not unkindly. "I'm afraid I have nothing to offer you except whisky and soda. I've just motored up from the country, and if I wake the servants, I shall disturb my wife."
"There is no necessity, thank you," she assured him. "I am not in need of anything. The room was a little warm after the street. I am quite all right."
"You are certain that you can read the copy?"
He moved to the door to be sure that it was closed and dragged a heavy screen in front of it in order to still more effectually deaden the sound. Presently the clicking of the machine commenced. Rapidly and expertly, the typist proceeded with her task. Gregory Dent, his labours over, sank into an easy-chair and closed his eyes. He had spent a strenuous day for a man who had passed middle age. Yet, he reflected, how well it was that he had gone north himself. It showed how little one could trust these ambassadors. There would be trouble to-morrow—trouble and plenty of it—not of his making, though. Besides, there would be the plaudits of all those whose money he had contrived to save. A happy day, on the whole, he decided. His great task accomplished, he would rest. It had been a long winter and it was time he had a holiday. Would Angela care for Monte Carlo, he wondered? An excellent idea, anyhow. Angela loved to gamble. Well, she should gamble to her heart's content. Or, would she prefer Cannes, with its sunny skies, and gaily crowded promenade. He suddenly pictured her upon the Croisette, strolling from the Carlton, arm in arm with him, her little cries of delight as she examined the shop windows and led him gaily inside—a willing victim. Yes, it must be Cannes, he thought drowsily....
Presently, he dozed for a few minutes. The click of the typewriter ceased. He opened his eyes with a queer sense of disquietude and looked into the face of death.
BENSKIN, hardened though he was to the sight of tragedy, gave a little shiver of horror as he leaned down to make his brief examination of the man who, a few hours before, had been so full of life.
"Death," the doctor pointed out in a hushed whisper, "must have been almost instantaneous. You see, he was shot, apparently at close range, by a bullet which went straight through the heart. I doubt whether he had time even to realise what had happened."
Benskin glanced around the room. The sergeant, a policeman, and an awed and trembling butler in the background were its sole remaining occupants.
"Is the body exactly as you found it?" he asked the former.
"The doctor was the first one to touch it, sir," the sergeant assured him.
"Not a sign of one."
"Any one here before you?"
"Only the maid who found the body and the butler. Neither of them came further into the room than the corner of the screen. The butler telephoned at once from the hall, locking up the room. He handed me the key upon my arrival."
"Then he was probably shot from the corner of the screen," Benskin reflected, examining a slight cut in the dead man's head, and a smear of blood upon the leg of an overturned chair. "You are sure that nothing else has been touched, Sergeant?"
"Certain, sir," was the firm reply. "According to the doctor, Sir Gregory must have been dead for a couple of hours, at least, but no one seems to have heard the shot, or to have had any idea that anything had happened. A maid came into the room as usual at about seven o'clock. She rushed away screaming and fetched the butler. It seems that Sir Gregory, who had been up in Manchester on business, was not expected home last night. He must have arrived some time after the household had gone to bed and let himself in with his latchkey."
"Do you know of whom the household consists?"
"Only Lady Dent, so far as I can find out. There are no children and no one staying in the house."
"Has Lady Dent been told yet?"
"Not to my knowledge."
There was a slight fog outside and Benskin switched on the lights. The doctor moved towards the door.
"I shall have to prepare my report," he said. "The body will have to be removed to the mortuary, too, as soon as you have finished your examination. There is nothing more I can do."
He took his leave and then Benskin turned towards the sergeant.
"Is there any one else who sleeps in the front of the house?" he asked.
"Lady Dent's maid. She has been used to sleeping in the dressing-room apparently, when Sir Gregory has been away."
"Go and fetch her."
The sergeant obeyed and presently ushered in a pale-faced, petite Frenchwoman, with fluffy, fair hair and deep-set eyes. Benskin handed her a chair.
"You are Lady Dent's maid, I understand," he said. "Tell me your name."
"Celeste Vignolle, sir," she replied, with a little break in her voice. "I have been her ladyship's maid for two years. Oh, but what a tragedy?"
"Has anyone told her ladyship what has happened?" Benskin enquired.
"Mon Dieu, no!" the girl exclaimed, wringing her hands. "Who would dare?"
"As the doctor has gone, I am afraid I must," Benskin decided. "There is a dressing room, I understand, adjoining her ladyship's bedroom?"
"Certainly, sir. I sleep there when Sir Gregory is away."
"You slept there last night?"
"Yes, sir. Sir Gregory was not expected home."
"You heard nothing?"
"No shot, or the opening or closing of doors?"
"Nothing at all, sir. I was out myself till midnight. Her ladyship had given me permission."
"Was her ladyship out too?"
"No, sir. I put her to bed before I went out at ten o'clock."
"When you came back, did you enter by the front door?"
"Yes, sir. Her ladyship lent me her latchkey."
"Was there any light in the study then?"
Benskin reflected for a moment.
"Take me upstairs," he directed. "Tell her ladyship that someone wishes to speak to her and ask her to see me for a moment in the dressing room. And, Mademoiselle."
"I wish to be the first one to tell her of what has happened. You understand? You do not mention the police."
The girl shuddered.
"Is it I who would wish to speak of these things?" she cried. "Her ladyship will be broken-hearted."
She hurried away and Benskin followed her upstairs. From the dressing-room into which she ushered him, he listened. She was apparently obeying orders, for scarcely a sentence was spoken. It was all the more of a shock to Benskin, therefore, when Lady Dent appeared. She was young—she seemed little more, indeed, than a child—with beautiful, deep-set eyes and fragile complexion. She had the air, however, of one already in the throes of mortal terror. She was shivering in every limb and ghastly pale.
"What has happened?" she cried. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"How do you know that anything has happened, Lady Dent?" Benskin asked.
"How do I know—"
She stopped herself suddenly.
"What do you do here? Who are you? What is all this mystery?"
"What time did you go to bed last night, Lady Dent?" Benskin enquired.
"At ten o'clock," she replied. "I had a headache."
"Did you hear any sounds in the night?"
"Did you expect your husband home?"
"Of course not. He is coming this afternoon, in time for a meeting at three o'clock. Tell me, I insist, who you are and what you want."
"My name is Benskin and I am very sorry to bring you bad news," was the sympathetic rejoinder. "Your husband returned last night and met with an accident. He appears to have been shot."
"An accident!" she cried.
"A serious one, I fear."
"I mean that he is dead."
The woman threw up her arms, gazed at him for a moment with distended eyes, and sank sobbing upon the bed. Benskin, with a word of sympathy, called for her maid, and made his way downstairs back into the jealously-guarded study. He locked the door on the inside and commenced his search. First of all, he stood for several minutes at the writing table, examining the traces of its recent use. He removed the sheet of blotting paper, and placed it in his pocket, held the ink-pot up to the light, moved once more back to the dead man's side, and, turning his right hand over gently, found a smudge of ink upon his forefinger. The tumbler, with its dregs of whisky and soda, was still there, and a half-burnt cigarette. The telephone book stood open and he made a note of the page. Then he went through the drawers and took possession of some loose sheets of manuscript he found there, which he examined through a pocket microscope. Afterwards he searched the room meticulously, but in vain, for any trace of the missing weapon. Finally he rang the bell for the butler.
"I understand that Sir Gregory was not expected home last night?" he asked.
"He certainly was not, sir," the man replied. "I should have received orders to have waited up, or to have left some things out for him."
"And no one in the house has any idea as to what hour he arrived?"
"No one, sir. The servants' quarters lie rather far back, and we shouldn't hear anything that took place in the front of the house, or in the street."
"The room had better be kept locked up for another hour," he ordered. "The sergeant will stay with you in case anything is wanted, and the doctor will be here again later on. If Lady Dent has any close friends or relatives in the neighbourhood, they had better be sent for,"
"Very good, sir."
He departed and Benskin beckoned to the sergeant who had been waiting in the hall. "It appears that you were quite right, and that Sir Gregory was not expected home last night," he confided. "He arrived unexpectedly, obviously for some special reason. He wrote letters immediately on his arrival and telephoned. Disconnect the other telephone, sergeant, and answer every enquiry yourself from here until I see you again. All messages that come through to the house to be censored. You understand?"
"Quite well, sir," the sergeant assured him.
Benskin gave one last pitying glance at the crumpled-up figure upon the floor—huge, it seemed, in its cumbrous distortion of limb. Then he started out in search of the murderer.
THE young woman who was presently shown into the waiting room of Miss Fisher's Typewriting Agency, in response to Benskin's enquiry, some ten days later, impressed him from the first with her good looks, her composure, and complete self-control.
"You wished to see me?" she asked. "I am Miss Horton."
"I wished to see you," he admitted, handing her a card. "Forgive me for not sending in my name."
She glanced at it and looked across at him with no sign of alarm.
"A detective," she observed. "What do you want with me?"
"I have come to you on somewhat serious business," he replied, "and I should tell you at once that, although if you have nothing to conceal, I should advise you to be frank with me, you are not obliged to answer my questions."
"There is no reason why I shouldn't."
"Then why didn't you come forward at the inquest on Sir Gregory Dent and give your evidence?" he demanded swiftly.
"Why should I? I wasn't summoned. I could tell the police nothing. Sir Gregory was quite all right when I saw him last."
"Nevertheless, you seem to have been the last person who saw him alive," Benskin reminded her. "I am quite sure that you have intelligence enough to know that that makes your evidence important."
She made no reply beyond the merest shrug of the shoulders.
"Any other questions?" she enquired.
"You typed three letters for Sir Gregory Dent that night, the delivery of which would practically have destroyed the chance of your father's firm being included in the Dent Cotton Amalgamation Scheme," Benskin continued. "Not one of those communications reached its destination."
This time her composure was disturbed.
"How can you possibly know what I typed?" she exclaimed, with a little start.
"I will set you a good example," he declared, "by answering your question. I know because I found the original copy, which Sir Gregory had written with his own hand, in one of the drawers of the writing table. I knew he had probably written it that night because his fingers were badly smudged with ink, there was a telephone book open upon his desk, from which I discovered quite easily that he had telephoned for a stenographer to this office, and that you had answered the summons. There were other signs of a typewriter having been used. I discovered that those communications had never been delivered at their destinations, by enquiry in the usual course. The result was that your father's firm—which, if Sir Gregory Dent was not misinformed during his visit north, is in a precarious financial condition—was included in the amalgamation and relieved of its responsibilities."
"You are really quite clever," she admitted. "Any more questions?"
Benskin reflected for a moment.
"Who let you in when you arrived at the house, and what time?"
"About half-past three. Sir Gregory let me in himself. There seemed to be no one else up."
"You saw no one else all the time you were in the house?"
"Not a soul. If I had, I might have thought of coming and giving evidence. As it is, nothing that I could say would have been of any use."
Benskin looked at her steadily.
"I wonder," he suggested, "if it has occurred to you that without Sir Gregory's death it would have been useless for you to have suppressed the delivery of those letters? In other words, Sir Gregory Dent's presence at the meeting the following afternoon would have meant your father's ruin."
"I am not so sure," she replied, after a moment's hesitation. "Sir Gregory was very unfair in his strictures and the other directors might have taken a different view. Of course," she went on, "I can see what you're aiming at. You are suggesting that I murdered Sir Gregory Dent."
"You were, at any rate, the last person known to have been with him," Benskin reminded her, "and, furthermore, you had a motive."
"On the other hand," she objected, "how can you believe it possible that I went there with any such idea in my head? He rang up the typewriting office quite unexpectedly. I never heard of him before. I answered the call because I happened to be the girl on duty."
"A good point," Benskin admitted.
"Besides," she added, "I never fired a pistol off in my life. I shouldn't know what to do with one if I had it."
"Then what was this one doing in your room?" Benskin asked, producing a weapon suddenly from his pocket.
She stared at it transfixed.
"In my room?" she repeated. "I never saw it before."
"Really!" he murmured. "Yet it was found in your apartment at Cranford Court, carefully wrapped up in brown paper and hidden in the bottom of one of your drawers."
"I never saw it before," she insisted.
He replaced it in his pocket.
"Miss Hnrton," he said, "I am going to speak to you very seriously. I repeat that you were the last person known to have seen Sir Gregory Dent alive. You had a sufficient motive for the crime. Sir Gregory was killed by a revolver bullet from a weapon of somewhat peculiar gauge. This weapon, which was found concealed in your room, is of the same gauge.... No—don't speak for a moment, please. You must understand, as a young woman of common sense, that the situation is extremely serious. I should be perfectly justified, in fact, in arresting you at this moment. Is there anything you can tell me, as the representative of the police, which would assist us in tracing the murderer of Sir Gregory? Think over that question, please. I shall ask you no other."
"Nothing," she answered stubbornly.
He took up his hat.
"Then I can only wish you good morning," he said,
"You aren't going to arrest me then?"
"There is no charge against you at present. Good morning."
BENSKIN had his first conference with the Sub-Commissioner that afternoon. When he had concluded his report, the latter looked across the desk at him in surprise.
"But, my dear Benskin," he protested, "surely on that evidence you ought to apply for a warrant against the young woman?"
"I can get it at any moment," Benskin pointed out, "and she is of course under police surveillance. At the same time," he went on earnestly, "forgive me, Major Houlden, if I am even a little over-anxious not to put a person on trial for her life until I am perfectly convinced in my own mind of her guilt. She probably did kill Sir Gregory, and if so, she will have to answer for it. She can't escape, I promise you that—but I once made what I always felt was a moral mistake. I don't want to do that again. I want to be sure."
The Sub-Commissioner was not altogether sympathetic.
"I don't blame you for being careful, Benskin," he admitted, "but you can't bring the kid-glove business into a case of this sort. If there is any other person in the world against whom you can collect as much evidence as you have against this young woman, go and bring him in. A day or two longer won't hurt us. However, in the language of the Scots—I hae ma doots.'"
"And I my fears," Benskin acknowledged.
Benskin, waiting in the lounge of a popular thé dansant restaurant, drew from his pocket the dossier for which he had applied a few mornings before, and read it through carefully:
"HERMYANAS. Of Greek parentage, born in the Argentine. Age, probably thirty-two. Professional dancer in Nice and Monte Carlo, Understood to have left the Riviera on account of money trouble. First engaged at Marabout's Cabaret Club for six months; afterwards opened small but fashionable night club called Lamb's Cabaret. Believed to be the sole proprietor. Financial reputation now excellent. Understood to have woman backer. Nothing against him in this country. Reputation on Riviera indifferent."
He folded up the report and placed it carefully in his pocket. Almost as he did so, the young woman for whom he was waiting entered. In her very smart clothes, and from her generally chic appearance, few people would have taken Celeste for a lady's maid.
"Mademoiselle," Benskin murmured, rising to his feet and confronting her.
She looked at him pleasantly but with no sign of recognition.
"We met," he reminded her, "under somewhat unhappy circumstances."
All the gaiety seemed to fade from her face. She gave a little gasp.
"You are the detective!" she exclaimed.
"No need to be frightened of me," he reassured her. "I am not really very formidable. Are you alone? Might I have a few minutes with you?"
He spoke in French and the sound of her own language seemed to soothe her.
"I am alone," she admitted, "but—you will not speak of that—I cannot bear it. It was all too terrible."
"I have ordered some tea," he said, as he drew his chair confidentially towards her.
"Mademoiselle," he continued, "it is not my wish to disturb you, yet I have a word or two to say about that night. Shall we converse here, or would you rather come to my rooms?"
"But why should you speak of it again?" she asked.
"You forget," he reminded her, "that it has become my business to trace the murderer of Sir Gregory Dent."
"But—how can I help? Why do you speak to me about it?"
He looked at her for a moment as though measuring her powers of resistance. She had, he decided, more nerve than he had at first given her credit for.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "fortunately you were not called at the inquest, so you have made no statement upon oath, but your account of that night's proceedings was not true, and I am going to give you an opportunity of correcting it."
"What do you mean?" she demanded.
"You told me that you went out on the night of Sir Gregory Dent's death and returned about midnight."
"It was not you who went out. It was her ladyship."
Celeste was silent. Benskin continued, after a moment's pause:
"A serious affair like this," he explained gravely, "requires very careful investigation, and you know, in the long run, everything becomes known. Lady Dent, it appears, is passionately fond of dancing, and Sir Gregory, naturally, objected to her visiting night clubs and those places. Whenever there was an opportunity, you changed identities. You are reasonably alike and you wear the same clothes. This arrangement enabled Lady Dent to spend many evenings away from home, when even the servants believed that it was you who were out so late. On that particular night you remained in the dressing room, and it was you who went to bed at ten o'clock. Her ladyship went out. Where? At what time did she return?"
"I can tell you nothing, Monsieur," Celeste declared, and now, although her nerve seemed still unshaken, there was dawning terror in her face.
"You must understand," he went on gently, "that in the end I shall discover everything. You do no good by keeping silent. You only force me to remember that you have made a false statement to the police, which is more or less a criminal offence. Consider, Mademoiselle. You have no one to harm. You have yourself to save."
She toyed nervously with her handkerchief. The music of the jazz band, concealed behind some palms, seemed to be filling the air with mockery.
"Where did her ladyship go and at what time did she return?" Benskin asked again. "Remember you can do her ladyship no good by refusing to answer. You can do yourself a great deal of harm."
"She went to the Lamb's Cabaret Club," Celeste confided slowly. "She returned about two o'clock."
For a single moment the thrill of her words was reflected in his quiet, unemotional face. He was to reach then the desired end.
"The Lamb's Cabaret Club," he repeated—"run, I believe, by a man named Hermyanas whose private address is in Cranford Court?"
"Perhaps," she admitted. "I do not know."
"Her ladyship returned alone?"
"How should I know? I was in bed."
"In bed in the dressing room adjoining the bedroom," Benskin reminded her, with a touch of sternness in his tone. "Isn't it true, Mademoiselle, that Hermyanas returned home with her ladyship?"
She looked up at him piteously. He patted the back of her hand.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "it is painful, I know, but the truth must come out."
"Mr. Hermyanas came back with my mistress just before two," she acknowledged. "It was madness. I told her ladyship so. She would never listen to me. She was folle about him, and he, when milord Sir Gregory was ill—he hung about all the time. He believed if anything happened, she would marry him."
Benskin summoned a waiter and paid for the tea which neither of them had touched. Then he rose to his feet.
"You are a very sensible girl," he said, "and I shall forget that first story of yours. Now you must come with me for a little time."
"You are not going to arrest me?" she cried, horrified. He shook his head.
"Not formally," he assured her. "I shall have to take you somewhere where you can communicate with no one for the next few hours. Afterwards you will be free to go home or wherever you like."
BENSKIN unfolded his napkin, ordered a bottle of wine, and looked around at the furnishing and decoration of London's smallest and most select night club, with interest and admiration.
"Charming!" he murmured to the attentive maître d'hôtel, who stood by his side. "Is it true that Monsieur Hermyanas is the sole proprietor?"
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"One believes so," he admitted.
"He is here to-night?"
"Will you say that a gentleman would like a word with him as soon as possible."
The maître d'hôtel bowed and departed to execute his mission. Presently a dark, sallow-skinned young man of medium height, dressed with meticulous care, approached the table with a slight swagger.
"You wish to speak to me," he observed condescendingly.
"I do," Benskin assented. "Will you sit down for a moment. The matter is confidential."
Hermyanas fingered his eyeglass.
"This is rather my busy time," he remarked. "If it is anything to do with joining the club—"
"It is not," Benskin interrupted. "I do not, as a rule, frequent night clubs."
Something in his manner must have seemed to the other ominous, for he subsided into the indicated chair with a nervous little gesture. Benskin leaned over towards him.
"Hermyanas," he warned him, "don't try any tricks. I have a warrant in my pocket for your arrest."
There was a livid streak in the young man's face. His fingers gripped at the tablecloth.
"My arrest!" he gasped. "You are joking. I have never broken the laws. We serve no drinks after hours."
"You are arrested on a more serious charge," Benskin told him gravely— "on the charge of murdering Sir Gregory Dent on the morning of the 13th. It is my duty to caution you, Hermyanas, that I am bound to take note of anything you say."
There was no instant fear of speech from Hermyanas, for with a terrified little groan, he collapsed in his chair. When he came to himself, the handcuffs were upon his wrists, and the gallows before his eyes.
THE Sub-Commissioner offered his compliments to Benskin the following morning. There was something in the latter's expression which puzzled him.
"Getting callous, young fellow, aren't you?" he remarked. "I never saw you bring a man to the condemned cell and look really happy about it before."
Benskin smiled thoughtfully. There was a little picture before his eyes—the picture of Hermyanas creeping into a girl's room with a brown paper parcel under his arm.
DURING the busy hours of the day, Roden Street, that bottle-necked thoroughfare connecting two of the great arteries of Northern London, is overcrowded with pedestrians and traffic of all descriptions. At three o'clock on this gusty March morning, it was curiously empty. Benskin, overcome on his homeward way with a sudden craving for tobacco, looked hopefully at the single figure approaching, a hopefulness which deepened into satisfaction as he saw that the man who was advancing with long, leisurely strides, was himself smoking. They met almost underneath one of the electric standards.
"I wonder whether I could trouble you for a match?" Benskin asked apologetically.
The newcomer thrust his hand into his pocket, and produced a bejewelled briquet, which he proceeded to coax into flame. Benskin, a close observer at all times of men and their ways, was a little intrigued by this early-morning wanderer. He was a man of dignified presence, pale-faced, with strong yet ascetic features, dressed with a punctilious care which in a younger man might have approached foppishness. His black overcoat, open for the purpose of reaching his pocket, disclosed, as appurtenances of his evening clothes, a white cravat, tied with almost meticulous care, pearl studs, not too large but exquisitely chosen—his patent shoes and silk hat betrayed the assiduous attentions of the perfect valet. Yet there was one strange defect in his toilette at which the man who was now lighting his cigarette glanced with surprised interest. Between the second and third studs there was a small stain, which, to the latter's experienced eye, was undoubtedly the stain of a spot of blood.
Benskin blew out the light from the briquet and returned it with a word of thanks; its owner replaced it, buttoned up his coat, and passed on with a brief "good-night." For a single second, as the two men were parting, they exchanged more or less inquisitive glances. In the grey eyes of the stranger there was no expression save that of the idlest curiosity. Benskin himself, however, was conscious of some other feeling—partly professional without a doubt, inspired in some measure by that peculiar blemish in the man's otherwise impeccable appearance. It seemed impossible that he should have passed the evening, at whatever function he had been attending, with that disfiguring spot of blood upon his shirt. His cool, unhurried demeanour betrayed no sign of having been led into any kind of adventure. Yet the conviction that there was history of some sort connected with that ominous stain remained with Benskin long after he had watched this early morning wanderer vanish into the pool of grey twilight at the end of the street.
BROOKS, the East End detective, and Benskin's coadjutor on many occasions, looked up from his pipe with a smile of satisfaction when the latter walked into his room at Scotland Yard on the following morning.
"Well, we've got Eddie Huggins at last," he announced—"or rather we shall have, within an hour—and got him for keeps this time too."
"The Holme Street murder!" Benskin exclaimed. "I read about it in the tube, and it struck me at once that that was where the woman lived whom he's been in trouble about before."
"Same woman," Brooks assented cheerfully. "He's been living with her, or on her, for the last two years. He's done three months for assaulting her once, and six weeks another time, but she always seemed to take him back again. This morning she was found dead, with Eddie's knife in her heart. I'm going around to the police station now to see him brought in."
"I'll come along, if you don't mind," Benskin suggested. "I've nothing on this morning."
They took an official car to the Clerkenwell Road Police Station. Benskin was at that time only mildly interested. It seemed to him to be one of those cases in which a notorious criminal had at last delivered himself into the hands of justice.
"Did he stay on in the house?" he enquired.
"No, but he was seen coming out early this morning. We telephoned down to the public house where he has a room. He got in at four o'clock, very drunk, and was still asleep. I've sent a couple of good men to fetch him. He'll be here in a few minutes."
The charge room at the police station was empty of misdemeanants, but there was an air of expectancy amongst the few policemen who were loitering about and the sergeant at his desk. They were in the act of exchanging amenities with the latter when there was the sound of a commotion outside, and a tall, heavily built man, bare-headed, handcuffed and blaspheming volubly, was almost dragged into the place. He glared around at them all as the door was finally closed behind him—a ferocious figure, with red, murderous eyes, masses of unkempt black hair, unshaven, and with every appearance of having slept in the disreputable clothes he was wearing.
"You've planted this on me, you b——!" he shouted, as the sergeant motioned for him to be brought forward. "You always meant getting me, you b——y tec!" he added, making a desperate effort to reach Brooks. "You'll get into trouble over this, though. I'm not going to swing for nothing."
"Better hold your tongue," Brooks advised him. "The sergeant will read over the charge to you."
The latter did as he was invited and signed the sheet.
"Take him to Number 7," he ordered.
The man looked despairingly around. For the moment, his truculence had departed. The dawn of a terrible fear was in his eyes.
"Look here," he said, "you've brought me in before and I've made no fuss about it. I knocked her out a few months ago and I'm not denying that I've done it before, but as to killing her—Gawd, I was never fool enough for that!"
"Keep your mouth shut," the sergeant admonished. "There'll be time enough for you to talk, if you're fool enough to do it, when you're brought up before the beak or at the inquest. You'd better send for your lawyer, anyway. Whom do you want? Pussy Grimes?"
"Yes," the man answered sullenly. "You send for Grimes and look sharp about it. You've planted this on me, all of you," he added, struggling to shake his handcuffed fist. "You wait—blast you!"
He was led off, once more blaspheming. They could hear the echoes of his surly shouting all the way to the cells.
"Even Pussy Grimes," the sergeant observed from his desk, "will have to perform a miracle this time. Ed's just had cunning enough to stop before, but it was the odd glass of whisky that did it."
Benskin and Brooks re-entered their car and, at the latter's suggestion, drove to the scene of the murder—a dreary-looking building in a street a little south of the Marylebone Road. There was a curious crowd standing outside and a policeman at the door.
"Is the inspector still upstairs?" Brooks enquired.
The man saluted.
"Still there, sir, and the doctor."
They mounted a flight of stairs and pushed open a door on the first landing, also guarded by a policeman. Inside, was an ordinary lodging-house sitting room, furnished tawdrily, but more expensively than the outside of the house might have suggested. There were saddle-backed couches and easy-chairs, a plush carpet, a thick rug, a choice collection of oleographs upon the wall, a sideboard upon which were half a dozen bottles—and, on the hearthrug, something which was covered with a shroud. A doctor, who had been on the point of departure, the inspector and Brooks talked together in a corner. Benskin strolled curiously around the room, here and there touching an ornament, paying attention to everything except the concealed figure. He glanced through some illustrated papers, which had been flung carelessly on to a side table, and thrust one of them into his pocket. Presently, Brooks detached himself from the others.
"Nothing more doing here," he remarked. "Do you want to look at the body?"
Benskin shook his head,
"I've no taste for horrors," he admitted, "and the doctor's evidence is clear enough, I suppose?" Brooks nodded.
"It's Eddie Huggin's knife, all right," he confided. "It's there now—one clean blow. Left his pipe on the table too. They drew the cork of a fresh bottle of whisky," he went on, motioning to the sideboard, "and it's three parts empty, so they must have been pretty well gone. The landlady saw him come in and go out, and heard them scrapping all the afternoon. It's the gallows for Edward Huggins this time."
Benskin nodded indifferently, There were very few on the staff at Scotland Yard who were ignorant of the man's record and fewer still likely to bestow a single sympathetic thought upon him. There was no doubt whatever but that he was a gallows' bird, brought at last to the gallows, where he belonged. Yet there was one slight circumstance which puzzled Benskin. It lingered in his memory hour after hour, so that, later in the day, he decided upon a somewhat unusual course. He left the Yard early and paid a call upon that celebrated and infamous thieves' advocate, commonly known as Pussy Grimes. The latter, whose offices were conveniently situated near Bow Street Police Station, welcoming his unexpected visitor cordially, although with some surprise. He tipped some papers from a cane chair, invited him to be seated, and leaned forward across the table at which he had been writing.
"Well, Mr. Benskin, sir," he said, "when one of you gentlemen comes to see me, I'm naturally curious about it. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing very much, I am afraid," was the doubtful reply. "I suppose I ought to apologise for coming at all. It was just an idea. Things look very bad for your client Huggins."
"So far as I can see at present," Grimes admitted, "he has handed himself over to you gentry in fine style. What's your game? Are you in here to pump me? Surely you don't need to this time?"
"Not in the least," Benskin assured him—"and, as a matter of fact, it isn't my case at all. If I have any object in coming, it is rather for Huggins than against him. Not that the fellow doesn't deserve whatever may be coming to him, but there's just one point of view, Mr. Grimes, that we detectives who have a scrap of conscience must remember."
"I mean," Benskin explained, "that if, by any chance, Eddie Huggins, who was quite capable of this crime, and who, I am quite sure, has already committed it in his mind many a time, happened to be innocent on this particular occasion, the actual criminal would go free."
"Just so," the lawyer agreed, "Now you've started that line of talk, I'll tell you one thing that seems strange to me. You know who I am. You know my reputation," he added, with a smile which was almost a leer.
Benskin looked at him and nodded—a thin, undersized little man, with a sallow face, high cheek bones, narrow black eyes, too deeply inset, unpleasantly prominent teeth, discoloured with smoking, a tangled mass of untidy hair, a tout ensemble which went ill with his black semi-professional attire.
"Yes, I know all about you, Grimes," Benskin acknowledged.
"Well, these fellows look upon me as their friend as a rule," the lawyer continued earnestly. "They're never afraid to tell me the truth. They'll own up to anything as soon as they're sure the door's closed. I got Eddie Huggins off two years ago on that manslaughter charge. Well, he told me the truth before I started to work. If he hadn't, I shouldn't have had the ghost of a chance."
"Well, this time, for some reason or other, he's crazily obstinate. He swears by everything on earth and in heaven that he found the woman dead when he got there. He admits that he threatened to do her in the night before, he admits that they had been scrapping most of the afternoon, he admits that he went there meaning to have another row with her, he admits that he drank three tumblerfuls of whisky before he left the room—says he was knocked silly, seeing her lying there with the knife in her chest. He knows that he put down his pipe and left it on the table. He knows he was seen to leave the house and that he reeled back to bed, when, if he had been anything less than a fool—providing his story is a true one—he would have called in the police, but, even to me, he won't admit that he touched her."
"What about the knife?" Benskin asked.
"His knife, right enough—there's no doubt about that. Swears that he left it there the night before, had it out, and was half inclined to use it. Then they had a drink and made it up, and he threw the knife into the sideboard drawer."
"If he didn't do it," Benskin reflected, "has he any idea or suggestion to make as to who did or might have done? She had other men, I suppose?"
"Yes, she had other men," Grimes assented, "but they're hard to trace—mostly casuals, I should think. Ed has an idea that she got more money from one of them than from any of the others, but he doesn't know anything about him—never seen him near the place."
"I suppose she found Huggins money?"
"Regularly—plenty of it sometimes, too. A beastly case! I told him this morning that, unless he spat out the truth and gave me something to work on, I didn't know where to look for a defence. It didn't move him a jot. He swears that she was lying like that when he entered the room."
"Do you think," Benskin queried, "that he knows anything about her friends which he hasn't disclosed?"
"Not he!" was the scoffing reply. "Ed Huggins would sell his own mother to save his skin. The woman was pretty tight-lipped—must have been."
"You're going to make enquiries about her, I suppose?"
"After a fashion," the lawyer replied, somewhat doubtfully. "So far as one hears, she was just an ordinary woman of the town, with the usual haunts. Something may come out about her, although how it is going to help Huggins, I can't imagine. The trouble is that he's got no money, and even a philanthropic lawyer can't afford to pay for work for nothing," he added, with an unpleasant grin. "I think you've got him this time, all right."
Benskin rose to his feet and nodded his farewell. His right hand was busily engaged, however, at the moment when Grimes extended his own.
"Well, the world will be none the worse place without him," he remarked, as he turned to go.
THE lawyer was right. Certainly this time the law had a firm grip upon Mr. Edward Huggins. The magistrate, at the request of the police, remanded him, with a few curt words. At the coroner's inquest upon the body of Elizabeth Chalders, an unhesitating verdict was brought in of "Wilful Murder" against Edward Huggins, the day of the trial was duly fixed, and, depressed but blaspheming and protesting, Edward Huggins occupied in morbid melancholy what are known as the "State Apartments" in Wandsworth Prison.
ANDREWS, butler in the household of thirty years' standing, noiselessly opened the door of the library at Haddington House, Regent's Park, and presented himself before the desk at which his master was writing.
"A person of the name of Benskin wishes to see you, Sir Frederick," he announced. "I told him that you did not receive visitors without an appointment, but he wished me to say that his business was of some importance."
The man at the desk looked up a little wearily from his papers. He was very handsome in a somewhat cold and severe fashion—a man, apparently, of later middle age, although there was power still in his features, and in his undimmed eyes.
"I see no reason why I should be disturbed by the visit of an unknown person, Andrews," he protested gently. "Tell him to communicate with my secretary—with Mr. Henson—and an appointment can be arranged if advisable."
"Quite so, sir," the mart replied. "I only brought the message, because I understood from the gentleman that he was connected in some way with Scotland Yard and I thought perhaps it might have something to do with the investigations you are making on behalf of the Home Office."
"Scotland Yard," Sir Frederick repeated thoughtfully. "That seems strange, Andrews. Perhaps, under the circumstances, I had better see the gentleman for a moment."
"Very good, sir."
"And don't forget," his master added, "to let the chef know that the Major will be dining here to-night, and Lady Alice, A little engagement dinner I am giving them. Emil had better bear that in mind, in arranging the menu."
Andrews, whose thirty years' service had naturally given him a special position in the household, permitted himself a word of congratulation.
"This will be very good news to all the others, as well as myself, sir," he said. "We've missed the Major being abroad so long, and, if I might be allowed to say so, the one thing we always hoped for, even when they were children, was that some day he and Lady Alice would be married."
"Well, you are going to have your wish," the master assured him, with a smile. "They are to be married, as a matter of fact, in less than a fortnight."
Andrews took his leave, to return, a moment or two later, ushering in Benskin. Sir Frederick leaned back in his comfortably padded chair and waved his visitor to a seat.
"You wished to see me, Mr. Benskin," he said graciously. "What can I do for you?"
Benskin accepted the chair but made no immediate reply, He looked first at the door, as though to make sure that it was closed. Afterwards he glanced back again for a moment thoughtfully at the very distinguished gentleman who had accorded him this interview, and who was now leaning a little towards him in an attitude of courteous attention.
"You can tell me, Sir Frederick, if you care to," he replied, "exactly how you spent the evening and night of Tuesday, March 17th."
If the question came as a shock, the man to whom it was addressed gave little sign of it. For a single moment there seemed a greyer streak in his natural pallor, he had winced slightly, as though with the pain of some evil recollection. These things, however, were momentary. He answered in his usual tone and with scarcely any appreciable delay.
"In the first place," he said, "I delivered a lecture on that night to the British Medical Association."
"A lecture which was over at eleven o'clock," Benskin observed. "Can you tell me exactly your movements between eleven and three?"
"Is this an official visit?" Sir Frederick asked coolly.
"Not entirely. If it had been, I should have been compelled to adopt a different attitude. It has taken me several weeks to get certain facts together upon which I feel that I may have to take steps. There is, however, a chance that the whole fabric of my theories is wrong, there is a chance that you may have a perfect alibi. I thought it better, therefore, to sec you myself before I made use of certain information which has come to my hand."
"May I know precisely what is at the back of your mind?"
"You may. I am seeking the murderer of a woman named Elizabeth Chalders."
Sir Frederick's face seemed for a few moments to be furrowed with thought.
"And what leads you," he enquired, "to imagine that I could be in any way connected with such an affair?"
"The thing which first led me to make enquiries," Benskin confessed, "was a small spot of blood upon your shirt front when you stopped to give me a light in Roden Street, some fifty or a hundred yards from the corner of Holme Street, in which, as you remember, the murder took place. I could scarcely believe that you had delivered a lecture to the British Medical Association or attended any social function with such a disfiguring stain so plainly in evidence. I concluded, therefore, that the accident which was responsible for it had taken place later in the evening and I began to make certain investigations. I did so, I must confess, without the slightest idea that they would lead me into my present very disquieting position."
"Continue, if you please," Sir Frederick begged. "I may or may not be disposed to answer any further questions, but you have at least succeeded in rousing my curiosity."
"I will admit," Benskin continued, "that up to the present I have been unable to connect you directly with the crime. The man who is under arrest was seen to enter and leave the house. Up to now, there has been no question of any other visitor. That, however, may be accounted for by the fact that the landlady of the apartment was herself out until just before Huggins' visit. In that case, as you may see, Huggins' story, however improbable it sounds, might well be true—that someone had been in before him and committed the murder for which he is charged."
"Just so," Sir Frederick assented, "but notwithstanding that unfortunate accident to my shirt front on the night in question, a certain amount of common sense must be used in dealing with an affair of this sort. What possible motive can you imagine as being sufficient to induce me, a man—you will forgive me—of some social standing, a scientist, I might even add a notable figure in the intellectual life of to-day, to murder a woman, who, according to the newspapers, appears to have been little more than a common prostitute. Upon the face of it, it seems to me that you would need very strong evidence—more evidence than that spot of blood upon my shirt—before you could seriously charge me with such an offence."
"With great trouble," Benskin confided, "I have been able to trace the woman's antecedents. The first clue I came across of any account was a very much worn illustrated paper upon her table containing a picture of your son. I afterwards discovered, amongst her effects, an ancient photograph of him."
Sir Frederick received the blow without flinching. Nevertheless, there was a change in the expression of his eyes. He looked across the room now as a man might look at his approaching doom,
"I found the murdered woman's sister after much trouble," Benskin continued. "She is living in a small village near Cambridge and I had to promise that her name should never be mentioned before she would tell me the little she did. It was whilst your son was up at Cambridge that the tragedy began. He felt it to be his duty to marry this woman and he did. They never appear to have lived together, but she has had money from him for the last ten years."
"Whether this is true or not, Mr. Benskin," Sir Frederick argued, "does it enhance very much the probability of your story, considering the manner of the woman's life? A divorce would always have been possible to any one who had become entangled with her."
Benskin shook his head.
"The woman herself," he pointed out, "was a Roman Catholic, and yours, as we all know. Sir Frederick, is one of the oldest Roman Catholic families in the country. Therefore, you see, divorce was out of the question. Your son's life was practically ruined. He went to the colonies, where, I understand, his career has been most distinguished, and, except for four years during the War, he has never returned to this country. A little more than six weeks ago—curiously enough, the day after the Holme Street murder—he received a cable from you telling him to return. He came, I believe. This morning's papers announce his engagement to the young lady to whom he has been attached for so long."
"You are a very intelligent person, Mr. Benskin," Sir Frederick declared.
Benskin shook his head.
"I can scarcely flatter myself to that extent. As is so often the case in the detection of crime, the beginning was a fluke. If I had not stopped to ask you for a light in Roden Street, and noticed the spot of blood upon your shirt, any investigations which I might have been tempted to make would have led nowhere."
Sir Frederick rose from his place at the desk. He walked the length of the room and back again. All the time, Benskin watched him closely. When he returned he threw himself wearily into his chair.
"Your visit is a little inopportune, Mr. Benskin," he said. "Tonight my son and the woman he is now free to marry are dining with me. I am hurrying on the wedding. As soon as that was accomplished, I was going to consider the matter as between this man Huggins and myself. He is what you would call a bad lot, is he not?"
"One of the worst," Benskin admitted.
"He has been in prison several times?"
"At least a dozen. Furthermore, he is strongly suspected of having committed a murder six years ago, and he was tried for manslaughter, and only escaped on a technicality the year before last."
Sir Frederick reached a volume down from a shelf, opened it at a certain page, and, crossing the floor, presented it to Benskin.
"I am not a person given to self-glorification," he said, "but perhaps you might care to glance through my record. I have rendered what many people have been pleased to consider great services to my country and to the cause of science. There arc highly placed personages who must share this opinion, for only last week it was intimated to me that my name would be found in the next list of peerages."
Benskin read the long paragraph with respect, closed the book and handed it back.
"I admit without hesitation," he acknowledged, "that the world would be better without such a man as Huggins. I admit also, Sir Frederick, if you will allow me to say so, that the world owes you a great debt—the world of science and the social world. But there remains the puzzle—what has this to do with justice?"
Sir Frederick shrugged his shoulders very slightly.
"Ethical justice and justice meted out by you hounds of the law," he said gently, "must in some cases be a very different thing. For my own satisfaction, we will reconstruct the whole situation. I have a son—an only son—to whom I am devoted. His whole life is being ruined by a woman without a single redeeming quality—a slut, a prostitute, a person without sense of honour or decency. I visited her that night with the idea of seeing if there was a single spark of better nature in her to which I could appeal. I hoped that she might consent to go to New Zealand or to Australia, and for a certain sum of money permit her death to be advertised. She refused. Her life seems to have been bound up with this vile fellow Huggins. I saw her for what she was—an ugly blot upon the earth, a disease spot such as the surgeon's scalpel retrieves day by day. I made up my mind quite suddenly to kill her. I took a knife from the open drawer in the sideboard and I did it. If that fool Huggins had not blundered in a few minutes after I had left, in all probability no one would ever have been arrested. As it is, what is this man Huggins? A worthless, depraved parasite, who has probably already deserved hanging a dozen times. What was she? A corrupt harlot, poisoning the very atmosphere she breathed. Why should it be accounted murder when such a one as she is removed? Why should my life count on the same plane as his?"
Benskin shook his head a little sadly.
"Sir Frederick," he pointed out, "these are ethical questions for the meditation of the philosopher. I am a servant of the great machinery of the law and it is our duty to see that, so far as our efforts can prevent it, no man innocent of any particular crime should hang for it."
Sir Frederick lit a cigarette and smoked for a moment thoughtfully. From behind the thick curtains came the muffled sounds of traffic in distant thoroughfares, the occasional hooting of a motor horn. Otherwise, the silence of the room was so profound that it became possessed of a certain significance. Then suddenly it was broken in peculiar fashion. There was a faint buzzing from the corner of the apartment, familiar, yet so utterly unexpected that both men were startled. From the loud speaker, whose ebony mouthpiece was turned towards them, came with stereotyped intonation the beginning of the nightly broadcasting announcement:
"London speaking to the British Isles. Weather forecast,"
Both men listened to the gruesome threats of wind and rain in a sort of stupefied silence. Then Sir Frederick rose mechanically to his feet.
"Some one has left the thing turned on," he remarked. "Excuse me."
He moved across the room. Before he could reach the instrument, there was again a little whirring, followed by the same familiar voice:
"Edward Huggins, lying in Wandsworth Prison, charged with the murder of Elizabeth Chalders, died this afternoon, in the hospital, of alcoholic poisoning."
Sir Frederick stopped short and gripped at the edge of a bookcase to support himself. Benskin rose to his feet in dazed fashion. Both men were staring at the instrument as though some strange human being had broken dramatically into the situation. Again there was the pause. The voice went on recounting some other happening. Sir Frederick stooped down, touched a switch and there was silence. Then he turned and faced Benskin.
"My God!" he muttered. "You heard?"
Benskin stood there, with his hand to his head. It was as though the echoes of that dramatic announcement were still vibrating in the room:
"Edward Huggins, lying in Wandsworth Prison, charged with the murder of Elizabeth Chalders, died this afternoon, in the hospital, of alcoholic poisoning."
"That," Sir Frederick observed, his voice not altogether steady, "seems to introduce a queer new element of interest into the psychological outlook upon the situation."
Benskin opened his mouth and closed it again. There was a sudden interruption—gay voices and laughter in the hall. The door was thrown unceremoniously open. A tall, bronzed young man, with his arm round a girl's waist, entered. At the sight of Benskin, he paused.
"Sorry, Dad, if we're interrupting you," he apologised. "I had no idea there was any one here. The fact is—"
"We've come an hour too soon," the girl intervened. "Our house is much too small for an engaged couple and Freddie promised to show me some of his trophies."
Sir Frederick smiled sympathetically.
"You must let me introduce my friend, Mr. Benskin," he said. "My son, Major Pinsent—Lady Alice Cranston."
The young man, sunburnt, but otherwise a juvenile edition of his father, stepped forward and shook hands. The girl was pretty in a quiet and thoughtful way. She, too, nodded pleasantly across the room.
"Hope we're not interrupting anything very tremendous," the young man ventured.
Sir Frederick waved them away.
"Don't forget that dinner is at eight," he enjoined.
They took their leave. The two men faced each other once more in the stillness of the empty room. It was not until the sound of the receding footsteps had died away that Benskin answered the question in the other's eyes.
"Sir Frederick," he said, "you have presented me with an ethical dilemma which I shall not attempt to solve. I will only tell you this," he added, smiling faintly across at the older man: "I have known Eddie Huggins for some years, but I should never have believed him capable of such an act of good taste."
"Plain words," Sir Frederick begged.
Benskin threw his notebook into the fire.
"I have never wasted a fortnight's work so cheerfully," he declared.
BENSKIN, although he had been in many tight corners, faced death now—death instant and unpleasant—for the first time in his life. He could see into the barrel of the automatic, held with unswerving fingers only a few feet away from his chest, and he was physiognomist enough to realise that in the face of the man who held it there was little enough to be expected of mercy or consideration. The light blue eyes were hard almost to stoniness, the hand as steady as a rock.
"The name! Out with it!" the man with the gun demanded harshly.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Benskin assured him quietly, almost indifferently. "I came in to borrow a tin of petrol. No one directed me and I haven't the least idea what your name is or who you are."
As though speech had in some way relieved the tension, Benskin found time for a swift but comprehensive glance around the little room into which he had made so unfortunate an entrance. No apartment in the world could have seemed less like the abode of such a desperate person as its occupant seemed to be—the prettily furnished drawing-room of a country cottage, with French windows, through which Benskin had entered, opening out on to a trim lawn. The furniture was simple but comfortable—a case of tennis racquets, a shotgun, and a bag of golf clubs leaning against the wall gave the place a homely appearance. Lounging in a chair in the background was a very attractive young woman of the modern type, in golfing clothes, short skirts, and a tam-o'-shanter which she had just thrown away, disclosing a very complete Eton crop. She had been binding up the handle of a brassie and had the air of one listening to a conversation in which she took only the mildest interest. She was essentially of the country type—healthy-looking, pleasantly sunburnt, with a complexion innocent of any form of cosmetics. It occurred to Benskin that she would have looked distinctly more in place swinging a golf club on the first tee at Sunningdale than as the companion of a man who appeared to carry an automatic even in the pocket of his flannel trousers. The latter spoke again.
"You are Benskin, the detective, aren't you?"
"I am," was the prompt admission, "but I can assure you that this afternoon, at any rate, I am not professionally occupied. I meant to take my car out for an hour or so—sometimes even a detective has a holiday!—stopped down the lane opposite your cottage, realised that I was out of petrol, saw that you had a garage, saw from across the lawn that you and your sister were seated here, and came to beg for the loan of a tin of petrol."
The girl looked up from the task, which she had just brought to its neat conclusion.
"It is possible, Alan," she suggested, "that the man is telling the truth."
"Possible but not very likely," the other rejoined.
"My car is out there in the lane, if you doubt my word," Benskin intervened. "You will find further proof in the fact that my tank is empty."
The girl rose to her feet.
"I will go and see," she announced.
She walked lightly out of the room and crossed the lawn with flying footsteps. The young man was unbending; his tone remained full of menace.
"I don't believe in miracles," he scoffed. "You're the man I expected would get on our tracks, and to tell me you wandered into the one place in England where we ought to have been safe, by accident, is a trifle too much. Come, Benskin, why don't you own up? There are only two people in the world who could have given away the secret of this little refuge. Out with the name, and if I can think of any scheme to save your life, I will."
"I have told you the simple and precise truth," Benskin assured his inquisitor. "I have no doubt that the business of crime and its detection continues as usual in my temporary absence, but I am finishing to-day a week's vacation, and incidentally recovering from an attack of influenza. That is why my knees are beginning to shake."
The girl reappeared.
"The man's story is true," she reported. "You're making an idiot of yourself, Alan. His car is out there and his petrol tank is as dry as a bone,"
"Then," the young man declared curtly, "you are the most unlucky person I ever knew, Benskin. You have blundered into the most dangerous spot for one of your profession in this part of the world."
"Under the circumstances," Benskin remarked, "I imagine it would not be tactful to ask your name, but at the same time I should like to remind you that I am getting very stiff standing in this unnatural attitude, and your finger doesn't seem to me to be quite as steady as it was. Couldn't we discuss the situation under slightly more agreeable conditions?"
The girl smiled very faintly.
"For a detective," she observed, "I rather like him, don't you, Alan? I think he's right about that automatic too. Take his parole not to go until we have decided what can be done."
"I never give my parole," Benskin interrupted quickly. "I am not a free agent. Under certain conditions it would be my duty to Scotland Yard to break it."
"A sportsman, at any rate," the girl approved. "Alan, you don't need a gun so long as he hasn't got one himself."
"See whether he has."
The girl came over and made a brief examination. "Not a sign of one," she announced.
"Cross the room," the young man enjoined, "and sit in that easy-chair with your face to the light. That's right. Lock the door, Hilda."
The girl obeyed. Her companion lowered his gun, placed it on the table by his side, and took a seat within easy reach of the French windows.
"Now, Hilda," he said, "let us hear what you have to suggest. You know the situation. What can we do with Mr. Benskin?"
She threw herself into a low chair and considered the matter.
"I don't want to leave here," she admitted. "I've just got my Golf Union handicap and there's a competition next week. The place suits us both, too. What a nuisance you are, Mr. Benskin!"
"Damnable luck!" the young man muttered. "There isn't one of you men on the Force would have had wit enough to track us down here, and you come and blunder into it."
"You must remember," Benskin ventured, "that I still haven't the faintest idea who you are."
"Perhaps not," the young man retorted, "but when you get back to your job—if you ever do get back to it—you won't be long finding out."
There was the sound of a cheery cry from outside.
"Uncle Jo!" the girl cried.
"Now we're for it!" the young man muttered.
There entered, in tennis flannels, a plump and elderly gentleman. He was pink and white and he was streaming with perspiration. He entered smiling, but his expression changed as he realised the presence of a stranger.
"What a set!" he exclaimed, eyeing Benskin inquisitively. "Six all, and three deuce and 'vantages. That doctor fellow takes some starting, but he's pretty useful when he moves. A visitor, eh! Is it my fancy sir," he added, "or is your face familiar to me?"
"It might be," the young man intervened gloomily. "This is Mr. Benskin, Uncle Jo, from Scotland Yard."
Uncle Jo seemed suddenly a very different person. The geniality faded from his face. His mouth closed like a rat trap.
"Paying us a friendly little visit, Mr. Benskin?" he asked quietly.
"In any case, my visit seems to have been a mistake," Benskin confessed. "I stopped at the bottom of the hill there and came in to borrow a tin of petrol. To the best of my belief, I've never seen one of you before, yet our young friend recognised me and appears disturbed."
"Yes, I can imagine that," Uncle Jo acknowledged thoughtfully.
"Assuming his story to be true," the younger man propounded—"and there is a certain amount of corroboration in the fact that his car is outside and without any petrol—assuming his story to be true, what are we to do about it?"
"Dear, dear me!" the elderly gentleman murmured, taking up a press for his racquet, but all the time watching Benskin out of the corners of his eyes. "This is most unfortunate."
"I think," Benskin suggested, rising to his feet, "that the best thing I can do is to clear out before one of you says something of which I might have to take official cognisance."
Uncle Jo's corpulent frame barred the way.
"Not just yet, Mr. Benskin—not just for a moment or two, let me beg. You have thrust a very interesting problem upon us. I should like to hear how my nephew proposes to deal with it."
"Crudely," the girl observed. "I have only just managed to persuade him to put his gun away."
"A natural instinct," Uncle Jo commented, taking out his handkerchief and dabbing his forehead. "Postpone the séance, if you please, whilst I mix myself a drink."
He made his way out into the hall and re-entered in a moment or two, carrying a tumbler from which there came as he walked a pleasant clink of ice.
"Any ideas?" he asked cheerfully.
The young man shook his head.
"He refuses to give his parole. I don't know that we could accept it if he would. I'm afraid—"
Uncle Jo nodded. That air of benevolence, which doubtless made him a welcome guest at some of the local households, had altogether disappeared. He drew his nephew on one side. The girl listened to their whispering, and as she listened, she lost entirely her air of good-natured indifference. She looked steadily across at Benskin. With her left hand she gripped something imaginary; with her right she went through a little pantomime which Benskin at once understood. He braced himself for the enterprise, rose quietly to his feet, poised himself for a moment upon his toes, and dashed for the window. The young man made a flying leap to intercept him, but Benskin stooped under his outstretched arm. The former hesitated no longer. His automatic flashed into the sunlight. Benskin knew then that the girl's gesture had conveyed to him the truth. There was the click of the trigger—and no result.
Breathless moments followed. Benskin was no mean runner, but before he had cleared the corner of the lawn, he heard the sound of swift footsteps behind him. He had no time to turn his head. He made for the gate, listening intently. After that first spurt, he decided that he was holding his own, but it was a mile uphill to the main road, and his car was useless. He remembered the physique of his pursuer and for a moment his heart sank. Then came a wave of wonderful recollection. In the pocket of his car—in the right-hand pocket! No need to save his strength now. He spurted forward, braced himself for the spring, and took the low white gate almost in his stride, dashed round the back of his car, felt eagerly, almost in terrified fashion, lest his memory had failed him, in the loose pocket. It was there—charged—a turn of the wrist—loaded. He stood out in the open just as the young man, full of confidence, but with a very terrible look in his face, sprang into the lane. The positions now were reversed. His pursuer looked into the barrel of Benskin's automatic and Benskin's hand was as steady as his own.
"Just a yard or two nearer, please," the latter invited. "I want to talk to you."
The young man came on stealthily. Benskin jerked his gun upwards and pulled the trigger. The bullet flew skyward with a sharp little spit.
"Just to prove to you that I keep my gun loaded," Benskin observed. "Now stand just where you are, please."
The other obeyed sullenly.
"And now what?" he demanded, his blue eyes rebellious, a mirror of menacing thought.
Benskin opened his lips to answer and suddenly paused. His heart gave a little jump. Upon the foot-board, by the bonnet of his car, stood a tin of petrol.
"I see that the petrol I sent for has arrived," he pointed out. "I think you and I have had enough of one another for the afternoon. Supposing you do me the last service of pouring that into my tank?"
"I'm damned if I will!" the young man refused.... "Blast!"
A very handsome limousine car turned the corner and glided down the hill. Benskin cautiously concealed his gun and moved a little nearer to the hedge. The limousine pulled up. A girl leaned out.
"Alan, you lazy person!" she exclaimed. "Why haven't you been near the links to-day?"
The young man moved towards the limousine. Benskin calmly poured in his tin of petrol, started up his engine and thrust in his gear. From half-way up the hill, he looked back through the rear window. His late antagonist was still talking to the occupants of the limousine. Three quarters of a mile ahead was the main road, a stream of cars, a police station near at hand, and safety. Benskin pushed in his second speed and careered gaily on his way.
THE Sub-Commissioner tapped the end of a cigarette, which he had been holding for some time, upon the table, and lit it. The fingers of his other hand were toying with a roughly written telephone message.
"I suppose you're sure, Benskin," he queried, "that everything last night was pretty well as you've reported it?" Benskin smiled reminiscently,
"It was a genuine hold-up sir," he said. "I can assure you of that."
Major Houlden turned to the slip of paper by his side.
"This is the telephone message from Cawston this morning," he confided. "It is from Sergeant Alston, who is a very intelligent man:
"Have visited the cottage down Cawston Lane, usually called 'The Small House', this morning. I found the owner, Mr. McDougal, an elderly gentleman, mowing the lawn. The young lady and gentleman had gone to play golf."
Benskin's face frankly expressed his surprise. Major Houlden coughed, but continued.
"You must remember that in none of the modern archives here have we any trio such as you describe on either the 'Suspected' or the 'Wanted' list. Run down and have another look at the place, of course, if you want to, but on the face of it, it really seems as though you had been made the victim of a practical joke."
"I don't think so, sir," was the firm though respectful reply. "In any case, I should very much like to go down this morning. May I take Brooks and another man—in plain clothes—just a little holiday jaunt?"
Major Houlden shrugged his shoulders.
"You don't usually make mistakes, Benskin," he admitted. "Certainly, go and clear the matter up."
"THE Small House" basked still in the sunshine of a perfect spring day. The neatly trimmed flower beds filled the air with perfume. Early butterflies were floating about. There was the hum of bees from the herbaceous borders. Yet there was somehow a changed look about the place. Benskin was conscious of it directly he approached the low French windows. He was more than ever sure of it when an elderly gentleman, who was a complete stranger to him, rose from a wicker chair upon the portico.
"Mr. McDougal?" Benskin enquired.
"My name, sir."
"Are you the owner of this cottage?"
"Can you tell me where your tenants are?"
"Just what I'm asking myself," was the puzzled reply. "Queer kettle of fish altogether. They've gone."
"Seems so. I come up to do a bit of gardening once or twice a week. The young people generally go off to golf, but the old gentleman's usually around. This morning I've seen no one and what do you make of this? I found it in the tool shed when I took the lawn-mower back."
"This" was a plain sheet of paper to which were pinned several bank notes. There were a few words, written in a bold, feminine hand:
Dear Mr. McDougal,
So sorry to have to leave your charming cottage before our time. Notes attached. Please distribute the extra five pounds amongst the boy and the two girls who come up from the village.
"How long have they been here?" Benskin asked.
"Seven weeks. And damned good tenants too! Made friends in a minute with all the folks around. The young people were always up at the Hall and the uncle played tennis with the doctor every fine afternoon. What might you be wanting with them, sir?"
"Our business," Benskin told him, after a moment's hesitation, "is rather private. If you don't mind, we'll leave it for the moment. I'll tell you later on. In the meantime, may my friends and I look over the place?"
Mr. McDougal removed from his mouth the pipe which he had been smoking and struggled to his feet.
"Don't know as there's any harm about that," he assented. "Were you thinking of taking it?"
"Well, I might consider the matter," Benskin temporized. "Certainly it's the most delightful place for anyone who wanted to be quite quiet."
"I built it for myself," Mr. McDougal confided, "but I lost my wife, and rubber treated me badly, so I'm glad to let it for a month or two in the spring or summer and to take a room down in the village. This way, gentlemen."
They went from room to room of the very attractive little abode without finding anything in the least unusual. In the twin sitting-rooms, opening one into the other, Benskin lingered for some time.
"Do you mind looking around very carefully," he asked their guide, "and telling me if you recognise any articles, however trivial, which do not belong to you?"
Mr. McDougal was getting more and more inquisitive.
"Look here," he demanded, "who are you chaps anyway?"
"We're from Scotland Yard," Benskin told him.
Mr. McDougal was faintly incredulous.
Benskin handed him a card and pointed to the badge on his companion's coat.
"We're quite in earnest," he insisted, "and to be frank with you, we want to know something about your late tenants. We'll talk about that later on, though. First look around this room carefully and tell me whether there are any articles left not belonging to you."
Mr. McDougal obeyed, but he was a little dazed.
"Can't see a thing," he announced, "or anything missing either. Paid up everything to the nail. Gentlefolk, if ever I knew any. You're on the wrong track, Mr. Scotland Yard."
"Perhaps so," Benskin acknowledged, picking up a snapshot and looking at it. "We often make mistakes. You see," he went on, turning over some magazines and papers, "if we were too afraid of making mistakes, we should never discover anything."
"Well, if there's anything to be discovered about my late tenants, I'll eat my hat," the loyal Mr. McDougal declared ferociously.
Apparently the late tenants had made a pretty clean sweep of their own belongings, but had displayed, as the landlord again pointed out, the most meticulous care to leave behind everything of his. They made a tour of the outbuildings, after which Benskin induced him to take a seat on the portico.
"Tell me the names of these tenants of yours, please," he begged.
"Mr. and Miss Craven-Stewart, the young people, and Mr. Bellamy, the elderly gentleman," was the prompt response.
"And did they give you bankers' references?"
"Never asked for them. They called round here one day in a Rolls-Royce car, saw the sign 'To Let', looked over the place, and slept here that night—gave me banknotes for a month in advance. They brought down a manservant and a maid from town next day, and I sent two girls and a boy up from the village. The two young ones joined the golf club straight away and they've been hard at it ever since."
"Do you mean that they haven't left the place?"
"They went up to London two or three times, I believe," Mr. McDougal confided.
"I want you, if you can," his companion urged, "to remember those dates. This is very important."
"Well, one was a fortnight last Wednesday, another was the Wednesday before, and last Sunday they were up too. All three went together—old Mr. Bellamy drove the car. I don't know what time they came back, but they were at golf in the morning."
"How many cars did they keep?" Benskin asked.
Mr. McDougal hesitated.
"Well, they never had but one at a time—there isn't room for more in the garage—but I noticed that twice they drove away in one car and came back in another. Made me think they must have a house and garage somewhere in London."
"You haven't had any address of theirs in London, I suppose?"
"Can't say that I have. I had no need for one. Their money and their company were quite good enough for me and everyone else round here."
Mr. McDougal's manner was almost hostile. Benskin made a few notes and closed his pocketbook.
"You won't mind if I use your telephone, Mr. McDougal?" he asked.
"You can use what you want to," the other replied, "but it's pretty certain you're on a wrong egg."
Benskin smiled at him ingratiatingly.
"Try and remember, Mr. McDougal," he begged, "that we shouldn't be giving you all this trouble unless we had some cause for it; neither would your tenants have disappeared without, a word of warning, as they have done, just because I paid them a chance visit yesterday, unless there had been something queer about them."
Mr. McDougal was momentarily thoughtful.
"What are you telephoning about?" he enquired.
"I'm telephoning," Benskin confided, "for our finger-print expert. You noticed that I locked the door as I came out. I want you to leave the place just as it is for twelve hours. Afterwards, we shall have completed all the investigations that are necessary."
Mr. McDougal nodded.
"Can't go against the police," he admitted, "but much good may it do you! Look who's here!"
A two-seater of very sporting appearance swept in at the drive gates. A girl in golf clothes leaned out of the car.
"Where's Miss Craven-Stewart, Mr. McDougal?" she called out. "I've been waiting for her up at the links."
"All gone up to London."
"Mr. Craven-Stewart too?"
"The whole lot of them."
"What an extraordinary thing!" the girl exclaimed. "I suppose they'll be back in time for dinner?"
"They didn't leave any message," Mr. McDougal replied.
Benskin stepped forward, hat in hand.
"Madam," he said, "do you mind telling me your name?"
"Certainly," she acquiesced, looking at him in surprise. "My name is Strathers—Lady Helen Strathers. I live in the village."
"May I ask whether you have known Mr. and Miss Craven-Stewart long?"
"Is that any particular business of yours?" the girl rejoined coldly.
"To some extent it is, Lady Helen."
She hesitated. Benskin's manner was sufficiently impressive. "I have only known them since they came to live here," she admitted.
"You were not introduced to them by mutual friends or anything of that sort?"
"No, I just called because I liked the look of them."
"You know nothing about them, then," Benskin persisted, "except that they took this cottage as strangers and you called upon them?"
"That is so," she acknowledged, with a faint note of defiance in her tone. "They are very charming people and I am very fond of them both."
Benskin raised his hat once more.
"If you see them when they return, will you tell them I called?" Lady Helen enjoined, turning to Mr. McDougal, as she pressed down her self-starter. "I'm expecting them both to dine with me to-night."
They remained silent until the car disappeared.
"You see," Benskin pointed out, "you none of you know a thing about these people, delightful though they may be."
Mr. McDougal rubbed his forehead. Side by side with an increasing confidence in this quiet-mannered man, doubt was beginning to dawn upon him concerning these charming tenants of his.
"It's a rum go!" he confessed.
CURIOUSLY enough, the Sub-Commissioner still remained unimpressed with regard to the three mysterious tenants of "The Small House." He listened almost indifferently to Benskin's account of their abrupt departure.
"I dare say they're up to something," he admitted, "but you know very well how our records stand to-day. You can't point to any trio of criminals who are doing dangerous work and with whom we are not in touch—especially three answering to your description."
"That's quite true, sir," Benskin acknowledged, "yet we can't get away from the fact that the young man was on the point of shooting me when I blundered in. In fact, he'd have done it, if the girl hadn't taken the cartridges out."
"Bluff, perhaps," Major Houlden suggested.
"But I can assure you, sir, that it wasn't bluff," Benskin persisted. "He drew on me for all he was worth. I heard the click."
"Over six feet, you say," Houlden mused, "of the gentlemanly type."
"Persona grata with Lady Helen Strathers and her household," Benskin added. "The same breeding, I should say, without a doubt."
"What about the girl?"
Benskin was silent for a moment.
"I should think she's outside it all," he said slowly.
"She can't be," Houlden objected, "if she knew that the young man was up against it so hard that the chances were he meant to shoot you if she hadn't fixed his revolver. Then, what about Uncle Jo?"
"A criminal, if ever I set eyes on one," Benskin declared. "I know that semi-philanthropical type. Clever, too, they must be," he went on. "There they were, thoroughly established. Identities unquestioned in a quiet country place like that! If I hadn't stumbled in upon them, they'd found a hiding place safer than any slum in Europe."
"You haven't been able to trace what became of them?"
Benskin shook his head.
"That itself shows they're no ordinary trio," he declared. "They probably went south, turned the car over to an accomplice and doubled back wherever they wanted to go to."
The Sub-Commissioner studied for a few moments a list on the table before him.
"Don't think, I'm unsympathetic about your little adventure, Benskin," he said, "but it just happens that there isn't a single undetected crime which is worrying us just now which could be traced to any one of those three, and the man we want more than any one else, as you know, is Gollenstein. He's a vulgar, savage brute, and we've definite information that he's in Paris."
"Out of the question," Benskin admitted. "He wouldn't fit in anywhere."
"Then the only other big thing we're up against," Houlden continued, leaning back in his chair, "is this simply hideous succession of burglaries. Still, we've got the description of the man now and things have been quiet for the last few weeks. You say your young fellow was over six feet?"
"Well, we know our man is something like five feet one," the Sub-Commissioner reminded his subordinate. "No, I'm afraid I can't take much interest in your desperadoes, Benskin. I don't find a place for any one of them. You wouldn't like to cross to Paris, would you, and have a try for Gollenstein?"
"I'd rather stay here for a week or ten days, if you don't mind, sir. Gollenstein never interested me and I haven't got the line upon him these other fellows have. Besides, I'd like to know what has become of my friends. I've nothing particular to go on, of course, but I've searched every inch of the cottage and there were just a few little things which interested me."
"Go your own way," the Sub-Commissioner enjoined tonelessly.
FOR a week or more, Benskin's activities were directed in a somewhat peculiar fashion. He spent his afternoons and the greater part of the mornings wandering about Grosvenor Square, Park Lane, Berkeley Square, and the other fashionable regions of the West End. He displayed an inordinate curiosity concerning any of the palatial edifices in these districts which boasted a courtyard behind, and he continually referred to a snapshot which he carried in his pocket. Whatever may have been in his mind, however, he met with no success. The photograph which he had extracted from the waste-paper basket in the sitting-room of "The Small House" was without a doubt a snapshot of the back quarters of a London mansion of very considerable size. He failed, however, to identify it. The first progress on a quest which, even to his obstinate mind, seemed to be becoming hopeless, came to him entirely by accident. He was having tea with an acquaintance after watching the polo at Ranelagh one Saturday afternoon, when a middle-aged woman and a girl with a little train of followers passed across the lawn. Benskin, who had been bored to death by his companion, suddenly thanked God for him.
"You know everyone, Percy," he said. "Tell me who the woman is, with the wonderful pearls and French gown—the one with the rather pretty, athletic-looking girl?"
Benskin's vis-à-vis made a wry face.
"Same thing," he declared, "whenever you see any one carrying the wealth of the Indies about with her—she's American. That's Mrs. Husset Brown—just taken a house in London. Millions and millions and millions. Not bad-looking, either. They say she's had five husbands. She's giving an evening party to-morrow."
"Do you know the girl with her?" Benskin enquired.
"Know her by sight, but forget her name," the other acknowledged.
"Whereabouts is Mrs. Husset Brown's house?"
"Number 14b, Curzon Street—used to be called 'The Millionaire's Nest.' Want a card for her 'do' to-morrow night? Her secretary offered me a dozen."
"I'd like one," Benskin accepted. "Do you mind if I clear off? They seem to be rather drifting this way and I'm not keen about being recognised."
BENSKIN drove his little car back to town and pulled up at the corner of Shepherd's Market. He plunged into the network of streets behind, and in a very few moments his curiosity was gratified. He glanced once more at the snapshot before he replaced it in his pocketbook. Then he made his way back to the spot where he had left his car, so deeply engrossed in thought that he ran into Major Houlden without noticing it.
"Damn it all!" the latter exclaimed irritably. "You've trodden on my toe! Just as I was going to offer you something for your thoughts too!"
"You shall have the thoughts without the recompense, sir," Benskin replied. "I was just coming to the decision that chance is greater than circumstance."
OUTSIDE the gorgeous sleeping apartments of Mrs. Husset Brown, comfortably ensconced in an easy-chair, with an empty supper tray on a round table in front of him, a box of cigars and a pile of evening papers by his side, sat Mr. Peter Bracknell, the famous detective from New York, who was never more than fifty yards from his august mistress, and whose boast it was that not for ten years, although she travelled about with millions of pounds' worth of jewels, had she lost a single safety-pin. His dark eyes were clear and sleepless. His senses were all fully awake. The stairs which led to the sacred apartment were lit and visible. Upon the table, within easy reach, was a six-shooter, stale from disuse.... But, outside the house, up that long, grey stretch of perpendicular stone, strange things were happening. Sometimes it was as though a black lizard was stretched flat against the wall. Then again as though a sable monkey was leaping from one small balcony to another. Then a rope of silken cord swung in the air and some strange animal crawled hand over hand a little higher. All the time the rain drove through the black night. The darkness seemed impenetrable. Mr. Bracknell, in the corridor, smiled. He was reading the account of the last baseball game between New York and St. Louis. Mrs. Husset Brown slept soundly. She heard nothing of the creaking window, purposely left ajar, now a little more and a little more open. The increased current of cold air failed to wake her. It may have been because she had taken the last drink with two very delightful young friends, connected with many members of the British aristocracy.
A strangely clad black form crept into the room, a little slit of white where the face might have been—nothing else—the costume of an acrobat. Mrs. Husset Brown began to snore. Outside, Mr. Bracknell chuckled. A wonderful home run that! And up to the side of the bedstead stole the slim, black figure. There was the snip of a pair of scissors, the loosening of a key from a limp wrist, the swinging open of a safe door. There they were! Emeralds which had graced the throne of a queen—out of the window, into the bowl of darkness. Silence! The aim had been good. Back again. Diamonds from the neck of the one woman who had conquered the great Argentine millionaire. Down they sparkled and glittered through the blackness. And once more they reached their goal. Back again. There were the pearls of the great Empress, shimmering ghostlike through the dimly lit room. Out they went—again to their goal. A handful next time—lightly treated, but the diamond bracelet had taken years to match, and a royal crown was the poorer for the emeralds in the great pendant. Finished! Outside there was the faint sound of the striking of a match as Mr. Bracknell lit another cigar. Mrs. Husset Brown groaned in her sleep. The safe door swung to on its well-oiled hinges. Back again into the darkness a black-clad figure stole, the window was pushed gently to its former angle, never a moment's hesitation, over the verandah, hand over hand by the silken cord, a pause on the next balcony to release the grappling-iron, a crawl along a perilous cornice, a second's lingering on a balcony where the rails were a little shaky, another descent, a sprawl against the wall, a slow lowering brick by brick. Again the grappling-hook, another swing through the air, a pause, the slim left hand gripping the iron of the bottom balcony, the release of the hook, a light jump to the ground.
"My cloak, Alan!" the breathless figure whispered.
But it was neither her cloak nor Alan's hand which held her. The light from the torch in his fingers flashed momentarily out. The throb of the motor behind the wall was there, but it was a different note. In that spasmodic illumination, she looked into the face of the little man who had blundered through the French windows of the cottage at Cawston and whose life she had without a doubt saved. Even in that moment, with the rain beating on the pavement under their feet, the wind screaming round the corner, the blackness, impenetrable, enveloping them since the light of the electric torch had been dimmed, she kept her head.
"So you were hunting us, after all," she whispered.
"Sheer luck," he murmured. "Here!"
He stooped down, and picked up what was little more than a sodden mass from the ground—her cloak—and wrapped it around her. He pushed his torch into her hand and pointed to a postern gate at the end of the mews, which stood ajar.
"We've got the jewels," he confided, "we've got that brother of yours, we've got Uncle Jo. They're in the cells by this time. Take your chance if you want it."
"Benskin the detective!" she gasped.
"You saved my life," he muttered shamefacedly. "I'm only a man."
She laughed softly, leaned towards him, and he felt the light touch of her lips upon his cheek. Then she was gone, up the mews, like a flying bat.... Benskin returned to headquarters to report his partial failure.
MAJOR HOULDEN, Sub-Commissioner of Scotland Yard, came to a decision. He laid down the letter which he had been reading, and rang the bell.
"Send Detective Benskin to me," he directed the man who answered it.
Benskin followed hard upon the summons and he found the Sub-Commissioner glancing through the columns of a ledger which stood by his side.
"Three years, I see, since you exchanged from the Police Force, Benskin," he remarked. "You've handled a good many cases—most of them successfully. Nothing big, though. Are you ambitious?"
"Yes, sir," was the quiet reply.
"Character A1," the Sub-Commissioner went on thoughtfully. "Not a single black mark. That's good. Plenty of pluck. You took Holland single-handed, didn't you, and got a bullet in your arm? Not much physique—"
"Passed first class in jiu-jitsu and boxing though," Benskin intervened gently.
Major Houlden nodded.
"I had missed that," he confessed. "I see that you went to a Public School, and I have a note that you patronise a West End tailor and have rooms in Cork Street. Correct, eh?"
"Yes, sir," Benskin admitted. "I have a small private income."
His Chief leaned forward in his chair.
"There's a big job going, Benskin," he confided. "There are half a dozen men I ought to give it to before you, but they don't just fit in. For one thing, they're too easily recognisable. The trouble with most of my staff is that whatever clothes they wear, you can't mistake 'em—look all the time as though they were made up for a crook play. Read this."
Detective Peter Benskin stretched out his hand for the letter, and studied it carefully:
Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo. September 2nd.
Dear Mr. Sub-Commissioner,
How unkind of you to hurry me away from Monte Carlo. I had just succeeded where every mathematician has failed—in evolving the really perfect system. In a month the Casino would have closed its doors,
I will take what I hope you will not think a mean revenge. I will visit you in London. You shall know the exact date of my arrival as soon at I have made my plans.
Your Police system, Mr. Sub-Commissioner, would have been a great credit to Queen Elizabeth, or Henry VIII; to-day, do you mind my suggesting that you are just a little old-fashioned? These blundering enquiries, these awkward, ill-dressed sleuth-hounds, so out of the picture, my dear sir! They might wear "Scotland Yard" upon their caps, like Cook's tourist guides. If ever I decide to retire, I shall offer you the services of my own staff. Believe me, you would learn something then of the real art of espionage.
I have many names to draw from—some of which I have made famous, and some infamous—but I will content myself by signing this with the name which appears most often in your terribly erroneous descriptions of me.
There was the faintest possible change in Benskin's face as he reached the signature—a quick, indrawn breath, a flash of those ordinarily mild blue eyes. The Sub-Commissioner noticed it and approved.
"The letter came by this morning's post," the latter observed. "I have been wondering whether it was a hoax?"
"Nothing of the sort, sir," was the prompt reply. "That letter's genuine enough."
"Why do you think so?"
"I've studied this man and his methods," Benskin said. "He's an amazing character, but he has his weaknesses, like the rest of us. If ever we catch him—and we shall catch him, sir—it will be through this one trait in his character—his vanity."
Houlden nodded thoughtfully.
"Something in that," he acknowledged.
"They say he's a man with few pleasures in his life," the young detective went on. "This is one of his greatest—to mock and flout his pursuers. He'll never deny himself that. He's had the most marvellous career of any criminal in history, but some day or other he'll fall into line, he'll do like everyone of the others—he'll make the one small mistake. Then we shall get him."
There was a curious, almost a feverish note of anticipation in Benskin's last words. Houlden looked across at him curiously.
"Keen on the job, Benskin?" he enquired.
"Major," the detective replied, and if his physique was somewhat the physique of a youth, his voice now was the voice of a man, "there's no criminal in the world I'd rather bring in than Matthew."
"This is where I think you might start," the Sub-Commissioner proceeded, adjusting his monocle, and studying a memorandum block by his side. "In no less aristocratic a neighbourhood than Number 16a, Belgrave Square, there exists a gaming house where baccarat and chemin de fer are played for very high stakes. The place calls itself a mixed bridge club, and exists under the name of the 'Wanderers', but I doubt whether there's a rubber a week played there."
"Is this a matter of a raid, sir?"
"God bless my soul, no!" was the emphatic reply. "No spot in London likely to be so useful to us at the present moment. On the contrary, we want people to feel that they are safe there. Some day or other, a very big fish may wander in. That will be the time for the gaff, eh?"
"But surely, sir," Benskin ventured, "they must feel that it's touch and go all the time with them?"
Major Houlden shook his head gently.
"They're gaining confidence every day. As a matter of fact, the management are very generous. We're taking very large bribes from them."
"The Police Orphanage was the richer last week by a hundred pounds; the three constables on the beat are receiving five pounds a week each, the inspector ten, besides occasional gratuities. The money is regularly handed in, of course, but the management of the club have no idea of that. They think they have the police in the hollow of their hands."
"I see," Benskin murmured.
"This is where you commence your campaign," his Chief explained. "You'll have to join that club, Benskin, and you'll have to cut out Cork Street altogether for the present. There's a small suite already taken for you at the Milan Hotel, in the name of Walsh—Andrew Walsh. You are one of the famous banking firm whose headquarters are at Sydney. You have plenty of money, but you're modest about it—plenty of money, but very few friends in London. You have also a very charming lady companion who will join the club at the same time."
Benskin looked a little doubtful.
"I can manage everything else, sir," he confided—"I can even play chemie a bit—but the lady—"
"She will be provided for you, of course."
The Sub-Commissioner touched a bell, murmured a word of instruction, and a moment or two later a young woman was shown into the room. She was quietly but exceedingly well dressed, and her smile as she greeted Major Houlden was most attractive.
"This is Mr. Benskin," the latter said—"Lady Muriel Carter."
They shook hands and Benskin's vague misgivings began to disappear.
"Lady Muriel will help you about joining the club," her sponsor explained. "It will cost you money there, of course, but the Treasury will honour all your chits. When you are in, don't be afraid of losing a little."
"May I ask you one thing, sir?" Benskin ventured. "Why are you so sure that our man will come to this club?"
His Chief smiled.
"No one can be sure of anything, of course," he admitted, "but I am letting the club rip on in the hope, and I think it's worth while for you to bank on it too. The fact of it is, our man is immune from every form of dissipation except gambling. We know he was in London last year, but we couldn't get at him. We tried him with the most beautiful women in the world, and they might as well have been maids-of-all-work. But there's one thing his records show, and that is that wherever in the world there has been gambling on a great scale—at the Travellers' Club in Paris, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Florida, Buenos Ayres—sooner or later Matthew has paid that spot one of his furtive visits, there is a sensational loss, or a sensational win, but before we can lay our hands on him he has disappeared. They are talking already about a young Argentine having lost twenty thousand pounds in Belgrave Square the other night. That's the sort of gossip will bring him. By the by," he added, looking at his watch, "my time is up. You will find a packet of visiting cards in your room, Benskin, and your number is 128, Milan Court. Have your clothes moved in with as little fuss as possible. You'd better dine somewhere publicly to-night with Lady Muriel. She'll arrange it."
"Ciro's at nine," the young lady decided.
"I'm not a member," Benskin told her.
"I'll put your name down," she promised. "See you in the lobby."
AT Ciro's, soon after they had taken their places at a very desirable table, Lady Muriel pointed out two people on the other side of the room. The man was dark, tall, with masses of grey hair brushed smoothly back from a not unintelligent but too low forehead. His companion, who, from the perfection of her gown and jewellery, appeared to be a Frenchwoman, talked more to the maître d'hôtel than to her friend and seemed bored with the whole proceeding.
"That's the man we want to get in touch with," Lady Muriel confided—"Colonel Braund, the secretary of the Wanderers' Club. The woman with him is the Comtesse Riga. Our friend Major Houlden would probably regard her as one of the decoys of the place. I believe, as a matter of fact, though, that she is exceedingly wealthy and gambles because she loves it."
"You don't know either of them, I suppose?" Benskin enquired.
"Not yet," she admitted, "but things are moving. I have noticed incidents already which you, naturally, would not be looking out for. We are strangers here and we look fairly opulent. That is quite enough for Braund. I saw him send for the manager, just as I knew he would. He has our names already, copied from the book. He knows by this time that you are Andrew Walsh, banker, of Sydney, and that I am Lady Muriel Carter."
"Yes, but you will forgive my pointing out," Benskin ventured, after a moment's hesitation, "that Debrett's is a very easily accessible volume. Your name is, I presume, like my own, fabricated?"
She shook her head.
"The Sub-Commissioner is not quite such a bungler as that," she assured him. "Muriel Carter is my name and I have a perfect right to my title. My people are all settled at a convenient distance in the wilds of Ireland, and I am supposed to be doing a little 'journalism' in town—which indeed is the truth. That is where Major Houlden is rather clever in his stage settings. One of us being genuine is a guarantee for the other."
"I see," Benskin ruminated. "And the next step?"
"Will come from them, if not to-night, to-morrow night."
It came even sooner than they had expected. Before they had proceeded very far with their dinner, they saw the two people in whom they were interested rise from their places and, preceded by a bowing maître d'hôtel, cross the floor and establish themselves in the other half of the recess occupied by Benskin and his companion. The man caught the former's eye and leaned forward.
"You will forgive our intrusion," he begged. "Madame finds the draught in our usual corner intolerable."
The preambles of a little desultory conversation were already established. An hour or so later, when Braund and his companion rose to leave, the latter turned to Lady Muriel.
"You go on, perhaps, to the Florida?"
Lady Muriel shook her head doubtfully.
"I am afraid not," she replied. "My friend, Mr. Walsh, is not very fond of dancing. I fear he has more reprehensible tastes."
"As, for example?" Braund enquired politely.
The candour of Benskin's confession was irresistible.
"It is very foolish," he admitted. "I am a Colonial, you see, and I am afraid we are all fonder of a little gambling when we have a night off."
Braund's eyes seemed suddenly to narrow.
"Well," he observed, after a moment's pause, and as though satisfied with his scrutiny, "there's plenty of gambling in London if one knows the ropes and has introductions."
"I suppose so," Benskin assented listlessly. "I've been put up for a bridge club already, where they play two pound a hundred—'rather a gamble', the secretary called it! That isn't the sort of thing I mean,"
"If you'd really like a little of the real thing," Braund suggested, after a moment's hesitation, "may I ask to whom I have the pleasure of talking?"
Mutual introductions were effected. Braund took his new friend by the arm.
"Hypocritical city, London, you know. We have to keep this sort of thing very quiet, but you can have a game of chemin de fer to-night, if you'd care for it. I can't promise that it will be a big affair, but there's always money there."
"Nothing I should like better," the pseudo-Australian banker assented with enthusiasm. "I thought it was illegal in London though."
"We have good friends amongst the police," he confided.
THE Sub-Commissioner was in an exceedingly ruffled state when Benskin called upon him to report a week later. After the briefest of greetings, he passed a telegram across the table.
"What do you make of that?" he demanded.
Benskin read the few words carefully. It had been handed in at Monte Carlo on the previous afternoon:
COMING OVER BY BLUE TRAIN THURSDAY. ENGAGE SUITABLE ACCOMMODATION AND MEET ME VICTORIA. LOVE.—MATTHEW.
The Sub-Commissioner was thoroughly upset. In Benskin's eyes, however, there flamed, for a moment only, a sudden fire; afterwards he laughed softly.
"The man's vanity again!"
"Ordering me to meet him!" the Sub-Commissioner spluttered. "Gad, I should like him to have the accommodation I'd find him! He'd hear the tapping under his window before long, and I don't think he'd find his bed too comfortable."
"Anyway, we'll meet the train, I suppose," Benskin observed.
"Yes, we'll meet the train, but whether we'll find him or not is a different matter. He's quite likely to be travelling as the Archbishop of Canterbury or working as an extra stoker on the engine!"
He took up the telephone receiver.
"Put me through to the Passports Office at Dover, afterwards to the Chief Commissioner at Dover, and come and fetch a wireless for the captain of the Maid of Kent.... How are you getting on, young man?" he enquired, taking a cigarette from his case and tapping it.
"Quite well, thank you, sir," Benskin reported. "I've been at the club most nights and I think they're becoming used to me there. The chemie seems straight enough, except that there's a seven and a half per cent cagnotte. The baccarat's faked. There are three men, one of whom always takes the bank—Vanderleyde, a chocolate manufacturer from Brussels; Solomon, an elderly Jew living up at Highgate; or Amos Wheatley, a retired cotton spinner from Lancashire. I'm pretty good at card tricks myself, but there's nothing any one of these three could learn from Maskelyne and Cook."
"What about the company?"
"Extraordinary! Last night I could have made four arrests, including Lampson, the man who is wanted for the Bethnal Green forgery. I passed on certain information to Inspector Collins, with your instructions though that no one is to be arrested leaving or entering the club."
"Quite right," the Sub-Commissioner assented. "We can put our hands on the small fry any time."
"Lady Muriel is making a list of other people she knows," Benskin went on. "Good names, some of them, but a pretty disreputable lot, I fancy. There's plenty of money about, though. I wouldn't be surprised if it were just the place to attract our friend."
The Sub-Commissioner spoke on the telephone for several minutes. When he had finished, he had regained his equanimity. He pushed a box of cigarettes across to Benskin.
"The trouble will be to recognise the fellow," he confided. "I was talking to the Chef de Sûreté in Paris only yesterday. They have him entered under the name of Vanderler, and they have four murders and seven robberies against him. He told me that never in history has there been any man, amateur or professional, such a complete artist in the matter of disguises. He could have made a fortune upon the stage as an impersonator."
"Have you any idea what he really looks like?" Benskin asked. "I've read the books, of course: I mean, apart from that."
"Brodie, the American detective, faltered out a few words before he died," the Sub-Commissioner reflected. "Matthew got him in a café at Bordeaux. The substance of what he said was that Matthew appeared to be a man of breeding—slim, with a frame of steel, very lissome in his movements, and with particularly brilliant eyes which he usually concealed behind spectacles. According to Brodie, they are of slightly different shades of brown, which is probably why he generally wears spectacles. No use talking about his hair, because he puts on a wig as easily as we should put on a hat. There's one thing you'll always have to remember, Benskin. He's the quickest man with a gun of any of the famous criminals. He believes in killing as the safest way out of any situation, and he's lived up to his creed. I never encourage bloodshed, as you know, but if you're sure of your man, don't hesitate. He'll never be taken alive if he can help it. Let's see how quick you can be."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth before he was looking into the black muzzle of an automatic. He threw himself back in his chair with a little exclamation.
"That's one on me," he admitted. "I don't know where you learned that trick, but it's good."
"I practise ten minutes every morning, sir," Benskin confided. "We may go down together, but I don't think he'll get me first."
"Meet me in private waiting room Number 16 at Victoria Station this afternoon," the Sub-Commissioner directed with a little gesture of dismissal.
The arrival of a crowded boat-train at Victoria is usually an event of some interest to the Police Force at Scotland Yard. Upon this particular occasion, the Sub-Commissioner, having issued his instructions to his little company of assistants in the waiting room reserved for the use of the police, was strolling up and down the platform, smoking a cigar and looking about him with the cheerful air of one expecting welcome guests. Benskin, a little more in the background, covered a section of the train, and twelve other keen-eyed myrmidons of the Yard, who only appeared upon the platform at the last second, were also exercising a close, though inconspicuous surveillance over the stream of descending passengers. There was a royal prince, democratically seated in one of the Pullmans, who was greeted by a little group of friends and hurried away; an English lawn-tennis champion, fresh from his successes in Paris, received a small company of journalists before stepping into his taxicab with a case of racquets under his arm. A Cabinet Minister almost escaped observation until the last moment, when his secretary, arriving late, had to rescue him from the journalists who had just become aware of his identity. Apart from these three, the travellers seemed to be the usual sort of nondescript crowd. Not one of the watchers had anything to report of the slightest importance. Major Houlden and Benskin left the station together. The former was taciturn and a little depressed.
"After all, we're only human beings," he remarked, "and it's like looking for a needle in a haystack until we get something to start on. There were at least fifty men on that train who might have been Matthew. Looks as though the first move would rest with him."
"I'm not so sure," Benskin ruminated. "Colonel Braund told me that they were expecting some very high play to-night at the club."
"That sounds interesting," Houlden observed, a little more cheerfully. "Didn't mention any names, I suppose?"
"Better than that, he was inclined to be mysterious."
The two men stood together, waiting for a taxi. A drizzling rain was falling and everyone else had stepped back into shelter.
"I shall leave you to it," his chief decided. "If Matthew goes to the club to-night, he'll have his own men watching outside and they'd spot it at once if any of ours were there. I shall leave the place entirely alone. If you want help, you know what to do."
"You're quite right, sir," he approved. "Leave the door open and unwatched. It's our best chance."
A taxicab arrived at last. The Sub-Commissioner stepped inside. Benskin had elected for another stroll upon the platform.
"You won't go down there before midnight, I suppose?" the former asked, leaning out of the taxicab window.
"Never anything doing till one o'clock, sir."
"Dine with me at the Olympic Club at ten, if you don't mind waiting so late," Major Houlden invited. "If any news comes in I can let you have it."
"I'll be there, sir."
BENSKIN and the Sub-Commissioner were lingering over their coffee in the smoking room of the Olympic when the latter, who had been glancing through the late edition of an evening paper, suddenly sat up with a little start.
"What's the meaning of this, I wonder?" he demanded, leaning forward with his forefinger upon an item in the stop press:
Edgar Howson, the English Lawn Tennis Champion, this afternoon won the men's singles in the open tournament at Versailles, defeating Boiret 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.
Benskin read the paragraph through again, frowning.
"Why, surely that was Howson upon the train? I saw him with a case of racquets and half a dozen journalists around him."
"And, my God, look here!" his companion exclaimed. "Listen!—
"Lord Ellacott, who was expected to return to England to-day, is confined to his room at the Hotel Meurice, Paris, by an attack of influenza, and will be unable to travel for several days.
"Why, I saw him on the platform, shaking hands with Stevens of the Times!"
The two men looked at one another. Probably the same thought was forcing its way into both their minds. A club servant respectfully intervened.
"I beg your pardon, Major Houlden, but a special messenger has just arrived from Scotland Yard. He wishes to see you on urgent business. As there was no one here, I took the liberty of bringing him up at once."
A uniformed inspector stepped forward.
"What is it, Saunders?" his Chief asked.
"Two burglaries, sir, reported within the last half an hour," the man replied. "One at Ellacott House—a lot of jewellery missing: another at a flat in Dover Street, occupied by Howson, the tennis player."
"Howson's servant is rather badly knocked about, sir. He's able to talk, but rambles all the time—will have it that it was his master who attacked him. At Ellacott House, the butler declares that his master returned by the Continental train this afternoon and went out again later. The whole of her ladyship's jewellery is gone and many other treasures."
The Sub-Commissioner, with Benskin by his side, hurried downstairs. In the hall, the bemedalled commissionaire presented a note. The Sub-Commissioner read it through and winced. He passed it on to his companion:
Dear Major Houlden,
Not bad for a start. We are here, you see, close to you, comfortably established, and looking forward to a prosperous time. Don't change your personnel. We are anticipating many amiable encounters with Mr. Benskin.
"Who left this note?" Houlden demanded.
"That's just what I can't tell you, sir," the commissionaire replied in a puzzled tone. "When I went up to the smoking room, bringing you the messenger from Scotland Yard, it certainly wasn't here. I found it lying on my desk when I got back."
Benskin, with a word of apology, put it carefully away in his pocketbook.
"We must grin and bear it, I suppose," he remarked—"until our time comes."
AT Ellacott House, where an inspector was already in charge, the whole business appeared almost too pathetically simple. The servants were still hard to convince that it was not their master who had entered, who had ordered a whisky and soda, gone to his room for some time, and left the house with apparently the same luggage as he had brought, announcing his intention of spending the night at his club. The original contents of the principal bag, however, were discovered in the bedroom, and it had evidently been repacked with the jewels and many other objects of great value.
"His lordship's return," the butler explained, "was quite unexpected, as we had received a telegram only an hour previously, saying that he was indisposed and unable to travel. No preparations had been made for him, therefore, or dinner arranged for. His valet was out and it was only a chance that I myself was in the house. None of us thought it in the least out of the way, and we were all rather relieved, as a matter of fact, when his lordship said that he would dine and sleep at the club."
"The devil's own luck!" Houlden grumbled, as the two men took their leave. "Everything seems to have conspired to make his get-away a perfectly natural affair."
At Howson's flat there was nothing whatever to be gathered in the way of a clue. The only person who had seen the intruder was Howson's servant, and he, only partially conscious, was still obstinately convinced that it was his master who had attacked him. Benskin and his Chief were both a little depressed when they parted at the corner of Dover Street.
"I'm off to bed," the former announced. "You'd better do the same. We shall have all the hotel reports to go through in the morning."
Benskin called a taxi.
"I shall just spend an hour in Belgrave Square," he confided.
The Sub-Commissioner nodded indifferently.
"Waste of time to-night, I should think."
"The place always interests me," Benskin remarked.
BENSKIN, on his arrival at the Wanderers' Club, found Lady Muriel exchanging some banknotes for chips in the secretary's little apartment, an annex to the main room. She called him to her.
"Such foul luck!" she sighed. "Three times eights against nines, and the only bank I drew in for a trifle ran eleven times. I'm just changing my last three notes. Give me a drink before you start playing."
"Rather!" he assented.
"How much may I change for you, Mr. Walsh?" the secretary enquired genially.
Benskin handed over a hundred pounds' worth of banknotes, and received blue and red chips in exchange, after which he followed Lady Muriel to a corner and ordered some wine from a waiter. As soon as they were alone she leaned towards him. Her luminous grey eyes were full of a serious light, her tone was anxious.
"I'm so glad you've come," she confided. "There's something wrong about the place to-night."
He looked around him, the keenness of his observation masked a little by the good-humoured smile upon his lips.
"I don't notice anything particular," he murmured. "Rather more people, perhaps, but very few strangers."
She shook her head.
"It's just a feeling I have," she went on, "but I know I'm right. Even the habitués seem changed. There's old Mr. Solomon for instance. He's playing much higher than usual and he doesn't seem the same somehow. Who's the consumptive-looking man with the haggard face we were introduced to the first night?"
"Wheatley," Benskin reminded her—"Amos Wheatley. He's a cotton spinner from somewhere in Lancashire. I've looked him up in the book and he conforms all right. Made three or four millions in the amalgamation of all those mills up north and has dropped half of it since."
"That's the man," she nodded. "He gave banque ouverte tonight, a thing I've never seen him do before, and when he lost he laughed—laughed outright, and I've never noticed him even smile before. The whole place gives one a queer impression of everyone being different.... Look, there's a vacant place just opposite Mr. Solomon. You take it and watch him. I'll come and put in your bank."
Benskin rose to his feet and, crossing the room, took the chair which the croupier was holding for him. Exactly opposite was Mr. Solomon, indulging in his favourite gesture—dropping his counters through his fingers, collecting them again, and building them into neat piles. He murmured his usual ceremonious "good evening" when Benskin seated himself and then resumed his harmless occupation.
"The game is slow to-night," he observed presently, taking off his spectacles for a moment, as though to rest his eyes. "Our friends at the other end of the table arc monopolising it. They take every banco, buy every bank, and leave us with nothing to do."
Benskin smiled sympathetically. His blue eyes had never looked more ingenuous. He scratched his chin for a moment and glanced up at the struggle which was proceeding a few places away. But, indifferent though he seemed, and as good-naturedly emotionless as ever, the whole of his being was suddenly thrilled. Never for a second, however, did he lose his self-control. He felt himself subjected to a close and searching scrutiny, and he bore it without flinching. He even, after a few seconds' pause, carried a little further the desultory conversation.
"Were you here last night, Mr. Solomon?" he enquired.
"Last night, and the night before, and, as a matter of fact, every night for the last month. If one is a gambler at heart, what else is there for one to do? I love to gamble. I have business interests in England, or I should live abroad, as near one of the best casinos as possible. As I cannot do that, I make myself Colonel Braund's best client."
The bank reached the man who was seated on Benskin's left. He tossed a ten-pound chip into the pool, which Benskin promptly bancoed and won. He started his own bank with the same amount.
"Will you permit me to join you, sir?" Mr. Solomon suggested.
Benskin looked around, but Lady Muriel was nowhere in evidence.
"With pleasure," he assented.
They won three coups, but on the fourth, banco was called by Amos Wheatley, leaning, thin and eager, over the table. Benskin shook his head.
"You are quite right, sir," Solomon declared approvingly. "There is enough there for us to divide pleasantly. One must not be too ambitious."
The bank was auctioned and bought at once. Benskin rose from his place, leaving his chips in front of him.
"I shall go and finish my drink," he observed. "I'd hate to see it run another three or four times."
He strolled about the rooms, apparently aimlessly. Gradually he edged his way into the hall and towards the telephone booth. The hall porter pointed apologetically to a notice pinned outside.
"Sorry, sir," he announced, "the telephone's out of order. They're coming to see to it the first thing in the morning."
Benskin was for a moment nonplussed.
"Surely there's another somewhere in the building?" he demanded.
"There's one in Colonel Braund's private office, sir," the man replied, "but that's up at the very top of the house."
"I'll speak from there," Benskin decided.
"It's three storeys up, sir," the man told him doubtfully, "and the lift hasn't been working since we took the premises."
Benskin produced a ten-shilling note and the concierge promptly came out from behind his counter.
"This way, sir," he invited.
They climbed to the top of the house. The concierge unlocked the door of a room and motioned Benskin to enter.
"There's the instrument on the table, sir," he pointed out. "I've pushed the latch back, but do you mind locking the door when you leave? Thank you, sir."
The man received his tip, and departed. Benskin crossed the floor quickly, sat down at the table, and took up the receiver.
"400Y," he demanded.
For some time there was no response. He rang again. "What number did you want?" a tired voice asked, "400Y—urgent."
Again there was a long wait. Then the same tired voice. "Were you asking for 400Y? There is no such number."
"Is that the exchange?" Benskin enquired.
"Look in your book of private numbers, quickly," he enjoined. "You'll find 400Y all right. Put me through."
There was a longer wait than ever. At the end of it, however, came a man's voice, prompt and decisive.
"Walsh," Benskin announced firmly. "You know where I am. Send me a thousand pounds."
"A thousand pounds," the voice repeated. "Very good, Mr. Walsh."
Benskin rang off and leaned back in his chair. 400Y was the night department of Scotland Yard, and "a thousand pounds" was the code word for the strongest force of armed police which could be collected without delay.
Colonel's Braund's office was comfortably, even luxuriously, furnished, and in a distant corner was a camp bedstead discreetly concealed by a screen. Benskin lingered for a moment in the softly padded chair, his mind fixed upon the little scene below. Step by step he was building up his plans for the next half hour. He decided not to enter the card room himself again for the present, but to send the concierge in for Lady Muriel, despatch her to a place of safety, and, on the arrival of the police, rush the place after the manner of an ordinary raid. Suddenly his reflections were broken in upon. He fancied that he heard the sound of a footstep outside upon the stairs. He half rose to his feet, thrilled by that queer, indefinable sense of danger which nearly all hunters of criminals possess. Then, without the slightest warning, every light in the room went out and he was left in complete darkness.
There followed several moments of acute and breathless suspense. Benskin's hand strayed cautiously round his body to his hip pocket. He gripped his automatic tightly and stood a little away from the table. There were three doors, and he faced the one through which he had entered. Gradually a thin line of light warned him that it was being pushed gently open. At the same time, however, two other thin lines of light appeared in different parts of the room. All three doors were now an inch or so ajar. From one of them, at last, a suave but compelling voice broke the terrifying silence.
"Better put that gun down. You're covered three times over through the cracks of the doors."
The detective hesitated. Each of the thin lines of light was broken at about the same height from the ground by a dark blob.
"We don't tell lies, my young friend," the same voice continued calmly. "Throw your gun on to the table in front of you and stand away."
Benskin's brain worked quickly. His unseen enemy, without a doubt, had his life in his hands. He threw his gun upon the table. Instantly the room was flooded with light. On the threshold in front of him stood Mr. Solomon, lank and grey of visage, cigarette ash spilt over his old-fashioned frock coat, and his wisp of black cravat as usual a little awry. Framed in the other two doorways stood Mr. Vanderleyde and Amos Wheatley. Mr. Solomon lowered the gun which he had been carrying.
"Keep away from the table, Benskin," he enjoined. "You see, I am dispensing with my own gun, but my friends there, Mr. Vanderleyde and Mr. Wheatley, are still watching you very closely."
The speaker dragged a chair up to the table. He reached over and dropped Benskin's automatic into one of the drawers of the desk.
"I have underrated you, Peter Benskin," he confessed sorrowfully. "It is very sad, but I shall have to pay the penalty. I shall have to deny myself the one recreation in this dull city of yours to which I have been looking forward. This establishment, which I had hoped to find a harbour of refuge, will probably have to close its doors."
Benskin slowly subsided into the chair against which he had been leaning.
"Do you mind my pointing out that as, according to your instructions, I am unarmed," he said, "there is no need for Mr. Wheatley and Mr. Vanderleyde to keep their guns in that unpleasantly horizontal position. Those hair triggers are infernally sensitive."
Mr. Solomon waved his hand.
"Never take your eyes off my little friend," he directed his companions. "I do not altogether trust him even now. On the other hand, he will probably feel more at his ease if you do as he suggests."
The two men approached a few steps farther into the room, but lowered their guns. Mr. Vanderleyde, whose suave manners and courtesy downstairs had earned him many compliments, sank into an easy-chair, with his automatic upon his knee.
"I think you're wrong, chief," he grumbled. "I have always had a presentiment that this little man might bring us trouble."
Mr. Wheatley coughed hoarsely.
"I should get rid of him," he wheezed. "Put the fear of God into them at the Yard. Nothing like starting as you mean to go on!"
Mr. Solomon reflected for a moment.
"No," he decided. "I am very angry with you, Peter Benskin—very angry with you indeed—but I don't think we can spare you just yet. I wonder if you realise what a nuisance you are. Solomon, Vanderleyde, and Wheatley have been at least a month building up identities into which we were to slip whilst they disappeared, and here, on the very first night, you destroy our whole scheme. One up to you, Benskin! I will confess that. In return, as a favour, as a very special favour, do tell me where I failed. Thirty seconds after you took that chair opposite me at the chemie table, you realised that I was not the Mr. Solomon of last night. What was wrong?"
"The eyes," Benskin replied. "You took off your spectacles for a moment."
Mr. Solomon nodded in melancholy fashion. He turned towards his friends.
"What did I tell you?" he demanded. "Whatever you may think about him, and however you may be misled by his appearance, I contend that our young friend here is a very intelligent person. He will show us, I am sure—if we decide to give him the opportunity—plenty of sport. By the by, I noticed you at Victoria, Mr. Benskin. It was very fortunate for us that yon did not subject Lord Ellacott and Howson to the same—shall we call it?—'inspired' scrutiny. You might seriously have interfered with our evening's work, as well as our pleasure.... May I ask you why you are looking at the clock so often?"
Benskin tapped with his lingers upon the table.
"To tell you the truth," he confided, "I was looking at the clock to see what time it was."
The quality of Mr. Solomon's smile became a trifle more sardonic.
"A pretty humour," he murmured. "For the moment I was afraid that you were courting disappointment, that you were speculating as to the arrival of that posse of police?"
Benskin was conscious of a sudden sense of dismay. Mr. Solomon shook his head.
"Of course you know," the latter continued, "that you were speaking into a house telephone. You got no nearer to 400Y than the housekeeper's room in the basement."
Benskin was silent for a moment.
"The success of the evening does not lie entirely with me then," he remarked.
"Not entirely," Mr. Solomon acknowledged. "We shall leave these premises in dignified fashion, and without hurry, certainly in more comfort than you had designed for us. Am I right in supposing that you can see the time from where you sit, Mr. Benskin?"
"It is three o'clock."
Mr. Solomon rose to his feet. His two companions, whose eyes had watched Benskin's every movement, were already on their way to the door.
"I take it," he observed, "that you are too clever a man to attempt the impossible. At ten minutes past three you are free to descend to your friends, continue, if you will, your mild gambling, or communicate in any way you choose with Scotland Yard. If you attempt to leave this room by either door before then, the result will be unfortunate.... No, stay exactly where you are, please. No nearer that drawer."
Benskin watched their retreating figures with anguish in his heart.
"Scarcely living up to your reputation, Matthew, are you?" he observed. "I thought that you never lost a chance of getting rid of an enemy."
Mr. Solomon turned back from the door with a faint smile at the corners of his lips, a smile which seemed somehow intensified by the deepening of the lines about his eyes.
"Peter Benskin," he said, "if I thought that you were really an object of future danger to me, I should he regretfully compelled to participate in one of life's minor tragedies. You would be found here with your brains blown out—suicide after your losses at chemie, of course, as many people would be ready to testify. I flatter myself, however, that I am an artist. I do nothing without necessity. If ever, as I have already warned you, the time should arrive when you really become dangerous, when the open way is not there behind, then I promise you that I would not hesitate—one, two, a dozen of you—I would kill you like flies, but not for the sake of killing. Be wise, my young friend, Stay where you are until that long hand is well over the ten minutes past the hour. Then you may open the door without fear."
They left the room, and, in precisely ten minutes, Benskin followed them, conscious of retreating footsteps in the direction of the back stairs. The game was still in full progress below. Mr. Solomon—but, alas, not the same Mr. Solomon—was running a bank; Mr. Vanderleyde, without the bloodthirsty smile of his prototype, was cashing a cheque with the cashier; the perfect reproduction of Mr. Amos Wheatley was prowling round the table with hawk-like face. Lady Muriel rose from her seat and came to meet him.
"You look a little dazed," she remarked wonderingly. "Has anything happened?"
He shook his head.
"To-morrow," he confided, with a bitterness which no effort could conceal, "I am going to ask for my police constable's uniform back again and beg for a post as traffic inspector somewhere in the suburbs."
PETER BENSKIN sat up in bed a few mornings later with a sudden start. He turned on the electric light and glanced at his watch. It was twenty minutes past four, and the telephone bell by his side was ringing violently and insistently, with a weird note of alarm in its call through the darkness. He took off the receiver and recognised with a thrill the Sub-Commissioner's voice, hoarse and agitated.
"That you, Benskin?"
"Get down to Warren's Stores as quick as you can. Matthew's out again. Bad business, I'm afraid."
"Coming right away, sir."
In a quarter of an hour Benskin had picked up a stray taxi and was driven to Brampton Road. He found one of the side entrances of the great emporium open, and the moment he had entered the place he realised the atmosphere of tragedy. There was indeed something darkly dramatic in the strange scene—the vast room, with many of its show-cases covered with linen spreads, the shadowy spaces where the lights had not been turned on, the little groups of men talking in eager, subdued voices, the three bodies, crumpled up and grotesque upon the floor—two in their watchmen's uniform, dead—the third struggling to make a last statement to an inspector kneeling at one side, whilst the doctor held his hand on the other. In the far corner near an open door, through which came faint gleams of the approaching dawn, an inspector was seated with a telephone on a small table before him, barking out quick, imperative orders. The dying man, looking around, recognised Benskin and summoned him feebly. The doctor held a restorative to his lips, and, after a moment's gasping for breath, he gripped Benskin's coat sleeve feverishly.
"You're Scotland Yard, ain't you?" he said. "I know. Listen! There was only three of them doing the real work. The rest were just packing up and getting the stuff away. They all wore masks, but they were big men, and they moved—just like them dolls, as though they were on springs. I got mine just here, by that third show case. He came around the corner sudden. 'Put 'em up'. he shouted. I suppose I'm wishing now that I had, but I didn't. I got him—"
The man's breath for a moment failed him. The doctor wiped his lips. He continued, a little more faintly:
"I got him fairly in the mouth with my fist—thought he was going over and then I'd have been on top of him. He just staggered back, and out came his gun, and that was the end of me."
"Did you see what the masks were made of, or notice any peculiarity about either of the burglars?" Benskin asked.
The man shook his head feebly.
"They moved about like ghosts, sir. Rubber soles, black clothes, masks that fitted as though they'd been pasted on to 'em. They didn't disturb the lights. Their torches were all they wanted to see with. It was Jim who tumbled to what was going on first. We met down here at three o'clock as usual, and he see'd a white flame burning in the office where they were firing the safe, and directly afterwards we heard a rumble as the door fell open. He jumped and started for the alarm—got within a foot of it too, but with his hand all ready stretched out to bang the knob, they shot him dead, and he went over—Jim did—like a sack of carrots. There he lies, yonder. Never moved again."
The man's eyes were half closed. There was a brief, ghastly silence. The doctor shook his head.
"It's about finished," he announced.
Benskin leaned down a little closer.
"Don't talk any more," he whispered kindly. "Are there any messages you'd like to send?"
The man opened his eyes again. It was only a thin thread of voice which came from his lips, but it was curiously distinct:
"The old woman's dead," he said. "Never thought I'd be thankful for it, but I am now. I've been in two burglaries—but I never see'd anything like this. There were seven bags full of jewellery from the floor upstairs. They just worked the lift, and brought them down as cool as you like—never hurried at all, never spoke—just like b——y machines they were. As fast as they brought the stuff down, there were men waiting in the yard, who took it over to the shed. They must have had a waggon there. Perhaps, after this," he concluded, his voice dying away, "they'll let us chaps carry a gun. Instead—shot down like sheep we was."
The last word or two had come lingeringly from the man's lips. The doctor bent over him and covered his face with his handkerchief. Benskin scrambled to his feet. A lump had risen in his throat, but there was no time in those tense moments for regret or sentiment. He made his way to the corner where the watchman had struck the blow, and, with an electric torch in his hand, made a close search. There were a few drops of blood near the show case, and, amongst the kicked-up dust where the masked man had staggered and recovered himself, a small, white object, inset with a glittering morsel of metal—a man's front tooth which had been dropped, and the fang of which was still red. He wrapped it carefully in a piece of tissue paper and placed it in his pocket-book. Afterwards he continued his search, but without avail. There was no other memento of the encounter.
Six o'clock struck, and a slow, unwilling daylight was bringing faint relief to the gloom of the streets outside. Police ambulances had arrived and the bodies of the dead men were reverently removed. A crowd of curious loiterers in a side-street was continually being dispersed by the police. The managing director of the firm, Sir Thomas Callender, sleepy but agitated, arrived in his car from Richmond and bustled into the small office where Major Houlden, the Sub-Commissioner, and Benskin were talking.
"A terrible business, this, gentlemen!" he exclaimed. "Terrible! Is it true that three of the watchmen have been killed?"
"I'm afraid it is," the Sub-Commissioner admitted.
"And they've got away with a lot of stuff?"
"For the present, yes," was the regretful reply. "They've taken it off in one of your own vans too, and a limousine. What we should like from you, sir, as soon as you can let us have it, is some idea as to the nature and quantity of the stolen goods."
"I'll have a look round," Sir Thomas proposed. "The heads of the jewellery department will be here by now."
He hurried off. Benskin and the Sub-Commissioner walked slowly once more around the warehouses.
"I don't see that there's anything more we can do here," the latter remarked thoughtfully. "Our finger-print experts are working on the show-cases, and Hovell has taken every possible photograph of the footprints in the dust. They've rifled seven safes, cleared out God knows how much jewellery, and they haven't left so much as a hand-file or a collar-stud behind them. Benskin, you know whose work this is, of course?"
"Matthew's," Benskin groaned.
His companion nodded.
"There's no other criminal out of prison," he declared, "who could possibly have organised an affair like this. The detail of it all is perfection. The Brompton Road police were never for a moment suspicious. The sergeant tells me now that he was sure a crawling taxicab gave signals whenever the coast was clear so that they could get the bags across. When the van came out, the man on point duty simply thought that some one was making an early move into the country. There might never have been an alarm at all if he hadn't noticed the three men in evening dress in the limousine following it. He thought that was queer, strolled around to the back door, which was properly locked, stood on a case, looked in through the glass transom, and saw the bodies on the floor and the whole place in confusion. Benskin, what was the last news you had of Matthew?"
"I saw him three nights ago, sir," Benskin confided.
"Saw Matthew? Where?"
"Coming out of the Ambassadors' Theatre. I had dined late at the Ivy. I go there occasionally, because from something I once heard I fancy that it used to be a favourite haunt of his. Afterwards I crossed the street to watch the people coming out of the theatre. I always imagine, I don't exactly know why, that Matthew's a theatre-goer. Just as I arrived there, a man was handing a woman into a car. There was nothing familiar about his appearance at first—I don't even know why I watched him. He was well turned out, well set-up, good-looking, everything correct, silk hat in his hand as he helped the woman in, and then, as he took his place beside her, he half turned and looked at me. He couldn't resist it. He laughed in my face—half a laugh and half a sneer. It was Matthew all the world over, and then the limousine shot away. I jumped into a taxicab, but it was hopeless. All I know is that on the Embankment the car turned eastward."
"It isn't much," the Sub-Commissioner observed.
"It's something," Benskin murmured.
The managing director reappeared. He was more agitated than ever.
"The whole thing is inconceivable," he exclaimed. "The burglars must have known every inch of the place and every particle of stock. Three quarters of our best jewellery is missing and seven of our safes, with their cash reserves, are absolutely rifled. I should put our losses down at something like a quarter of a million."
"Any insurance?" Houlden asked.
Sir Thomas shook his head.
"A firm in our position," he said a little stiffly, "is not able to insure itself, unfortunately. Now, tell me please, Mr. Sub-Commissioner—Major Houlden, isn't it?—tell me just what steps you are taking. I must call a meeting of the directors at once, and report."
"We've commandeered your telephone down here," Houlden confided, "and they've been given Government priority. The whole of what we consider the thieves' highway, from Aldgate eastward, is being watched and searched. Every police station in London is looking out for the car and the van, and we've fifty motor cyclists on the roads. So far as we can, we've drawn a cordon around every thoroughfare. Reports come in every few minutes to the inspectors in charge of each district, and if it's anything important, we are notified at once."
The managing director nodded approval.
"Seems as though you ought to get them, eh?" he remarked anxiously.
"We hope so," Houlden agreed, "but you must remember, Sir Thomas, that these are no ordinary thieves. Their plans inside the place seem to have been perfectly framed and carried out, and no doubt they've arranged for the getting away just as thoroughly. Their danger spot was turning into the Brompton Road here without exciting suspicion. Once away from the immediate neighbourhood, there are a good many tricks they might play. Unless we have definite news within the next few minutes, I should think the odds are in favour of their reaching their first hiding place. It's when they try to deal with the stuff that I fancy we may have our chance."
"What about a reward?"
"It wouldn't make a shadow of difference, so far as the force is concerned," Houlden replied. "We'd all give our next promotion step to lay our hands upon the man who planned this coup. On the other hand, it might bring an informer in."
"I'll discuss the matter with my directors," Sir Thomas promised.
"Yon needn't lay too great stress upon it," the Sub-Commissioner advised him. "In any ordinary case, I should recommend it, but I don't fancy there's a criminal, or an ex-criminal in Europe, with courage enough to inform against the man we have in mind."
"Why the mischief not?" Sir Thomas demanded a little irritably. "You can give him police protection, I suppose?"
The Sub-Commissioner nodded gravely.
"Yes," he admitted, "we could do that. The time would come, however, when he'd want a little freedom, a chance to spend the money. They all get like that. We can't protect them against themselves. We have a small black book, Sir Thomas, which the Chief Commissioner keeps, and in it are the names of four men and two women, who, at different times within the last seven years, have found their way to Scotland Yard to inform against the man we have been talking about. They've had their money, or a part of it on account, and we've had their information. We scarcely knew their names. They drifted back into their own world, but not one of the six lived a week after having visited Scotland Yard. Two were returned as suicides, two were found drowned, the Coroner's inquest on the other two was 'Death at the hands of some person unknown.' They wouldn't accept police protection. They thought they could get away with it. They never have done; I don't think they ever will. Offer your reward by all means, Sir Thomas, but if it is an informer who claims it, he is looking for a quick form of suicide."
Sir Thomas was impressed, but inclined to be a little sarcastic. "I suppose I ought to feel my establishment honoured by the attentions of such a paragon of crime," he remarked.
The Sub-Commissioner rose to his feet. Streaks of sickly-looking morning light, tempered with fog and a drizzling rain, were finding their way into the room. Outside the sound of traffic was increasing.
"We'll move our headquarters to Scotland Yard now, Benskin," he announced.
An inspector presented himself at the door of the office and saluted.
"Telephone message just in from Woking, sir," he reported. "A plain van, answering to the description of the one we're after, has been found in the lane leading down to the golf course."
"Found? Do you mean that there was no one with it?" Houlden demanded.
"No one at all, sir," the man replied. "I think it's the one we're after, though. There was a card pinned on to it with a bit of writing:
"Kindly return this van to Warren & Co., Brompton Road, who will remunerate."
The inspector coughed; he was not quite sure whether a smile would have been in order.
"Well, I'm damned!" Sir Thomas exclaimed.
"That's Matthew!" Benskin muttered.
THE Press ran riot, excelled themselves in superlatives, and trotted out every time-worn phrase to blacken their headlines. A new era of scientific crime was prognosticated. No place henceforth would be safe. The guards at Buckingham Palace and the other treasure houses of London must be doubled. The SUPERMEN had come—the SUPERMEN of Crime. . . . Meanwhile police headquarters were stonily silent. They made no announcement, gave no hope. The very fact of their indifference to popular clamour was in a way encouraging. Yet the fact remained that, after four days of eager investigation and diligent combing of every criminal-frequented haunt in London, no arrest had been made nor any single clue discovered except that empty van with its impudent message. The Chief Commissioner, who was writing a book and was reputed to take no interest whatever in crime, became alarmed at last and sent for his second in command.
"Is it true, Major, that we are up against a force of superior intelligence to our own?" he enquired drily.
"Equal, at any rate, Chief," was the cool reply. "All this breathless search we are conducting is necessary, of course, but the odds are a hundred to one against any useful results. We are up against the same gang who personated Lord Ellacott and Howson the tennis player, and then robbed them. They are not ordinary criminals at all. We have the names and addresses of a hundred and thirty-two of what we call Class A burglars and misdemeanants on our books. We have to put these through a process of elimination, but, as a matter of fact, not one of them is likely to have ever seen or heard of the men we want."
"What are we going to do about it?" the Chief Commissioner demanded. "The public expect protection from us and they're beginning to wonder whether they're getting it. First the Ellacott and Howson burglaries—both on the same night—and then this hideous affair, you know. You'll have to change some of your head men, Houlden."
"Not just at present, Chief, if you please. Remember, we as nearly as possible got the Ellacott and Howson gang the same night. They only slipped through our fingers by a miracle."
"The miracles seem to work only one way," the Chief Commissioner grumbled. "What am I to say to the Home Secretary?"
"Let me talk to him if necessary, sir," Houlden begged. "The relative positions between us and the criminal world are entirely changed now and the sooner we recognise it the better. Years ago, before all these recent scientific inventions, and before the educated classes took up crime, the odds were all in our favour. To-day, the whole situation's altered. Given a certain type of intellectual who chooses deliberately to serve his apprenticeship and embrace crime as a profession, and the odds are in his favour, as against us."
"That's the sort of home truth the public would never accept without an outcry," the Chief Commissioner warned him. "It's a dangerous admission for any one in your position to make anyhow, Major."
"It's the truth," Houlden pronounced doggedly, "but it isn't so terrifying as it sounds. I say that, take every enterprise singly with the luck being even, the odds are in favour of the criminal, but when it comes to bringing off, say half a dozen affairs, the odds increase against him every time. The public know all about it when our coup comes off and we really get the man, but I assure you, sir, that if we could publish an account of everything that happened the night of the Ellacott and Howson burglaries, Scotland Yard wouldn't seem such a dud institute as they are trying to make us out."
"Who is the man you're pinning your faith on?" the Commissioner enquired.
"A fellow named Benskin, sir. Not much to look at, I'll grant you, but thoroughly sound. The most dangerous type for the criminal. He's a plodder, and yet he has inspiration and isn't afraid to make use of it. He'll get our man yet, sir, if they'll only let us alone."
The Chief Commissioner, although he was only half satisfied, brought the interview to a close. His second-in-command returned to his room and sent for Benskin.
"The Chief's had me on the carpet," he confided. "Any news?"
Benskin was looking a little pinched. The routine work of the last few days had been a strain.
"This morning," he recounted, "I had my first success. I have either been to see, or communicated with, a hundred and forty dentists."
"Didn't know there were so many in the world."
"I found one this morning down in the City who treated a man with a tooth knocked out on the day after our affair. I have just come back to look through some records."
"What type of man was he?"
"His name was given as Ellis. He's a leather factor of Endale Street, Bermondsey. I've seen the warehouse. It's a neat little place just on the edge of the commercial district and next to a couple of empty houses. There is a brass plate on the door, with the name of the firm on it—Ellis and Humphreys—and there was a dray taking some merchandise away. I daren't go in myself, of course, but I put the place under observation and I can hope to get a description of the partners to-day or to-morrow. That particular dray, by the by, was a disappointment. I had it followed to Liverpool Street Goods Station, but the cases contained nothing but leather, addressed to some manufacturers of children's boots and shoes—Chittuck and Baynes of Norwich."
"What about this man Ellis?" the Sub-Commissioner enquired. "Is he in the records at all?"
"No mention of him," Benskin acknowledged. "I don't take any notice of that, though. Solomon was a highly respectable man, so was Vanderleyde, so was Wheatley. The game over here seems to be for Matthew and his friends to create identities through their subordinates, which they can assume when necessary. This firm of Ellis and Humphreys, for instance, may be conducted for that purpose, and that purpose only. If I'm on the right track, it probably does a certain amount of genuine business, the two partners, subsidised by Matthew, really exist, and when he comes along and needs an identity to shelter himself behind, there it is all ready for him. This is my theory, at any rate, and it's the one I'm working on."
"What's the next step?" Houlden asked. "You haven't evidence enough to raid the place yet, have you?"
"Not yet," Benskin admitted, "nor am I thinking of calling on Mr. Ellis to enquire about his tooth. To-morrow, however, I shall get some further information about the place. I have a friend who's a small shoe-manufacturer in the East End; I did his son a good turn once and he is only too anxious to pay it back. He is going in to buy some leather and have a look around. If he brings me the sort of information I want, I shall take out a search warrant."
"You haven't much to go on at present," the Sub-Commissioner warned his companion.
"Perhaps not," Benskin acknowledged, "and yet," he added, "when I'm on a clue I like to believe in it—it gives one confidence. I can't bring myself to believe anyhow that there were many men who needed a front tooth replacing on Thursday morning, and fewer still, I should think, who would choose to go to a complete stranger to have it done. My dentist had never seen Mr. Ellis before in his life. Had to have my teeth scaled to get him to talk—nasty, painful job."
Major Houlden smiled.
"Well, I will say this for you, anyhow, Benskin," he remarked, "you are thorough."
BENSKIN, dressed with less care than usual, as though to bring himself into touch with his surroundings, sat before a marble-topped table in the saloon bar of the Three Kings public house, near London Bridge, with a pipe in his mouth and a half-pint of beer in from of him. The walls were hung with advertisements of various forms of drink and the floor was adorned with spittoons. The atmosphere reeked with the odour of stale liquor and sawdust. To him, in due course, entered Mr. Moses Klein, a shoe-manufacturer from the Bethnal Green Road, an Hebraic-looking person with black, curly hair, and wearing what might have been a very fine diamond ring on his dirty third finger.
"Vell, vell," the latter exclaimed, with a rather overdone start of surprise. "Fancy meeting you in these parts."
"Sit down and have a drink," Benskin invited.
There was a brief interregnum of general conversation, during which Mr. Klein discoursed upon the state of business, the high price of leather, the health of his wife and son, and others of his family. As soon as the refreshments were served, however, he leaned forward in his chair.
"Funny sort of show," he confided. "Send no travellers out and like to do their bithneth for cash. Suits me all right, when I've got thomebody else's cash to pay with."
"You shall give just what the stuff's worth," he told him. "We'll make up the difference."
"It will be about fifteen per thent," Mr. Klein said cautiously. "You thee. Mr. Benskin, I buy very cheap, because I pay cash. They like my money, these leather men. Ith good money, Mr. Benskin."
"No doubt, but not quite so much of my name, please," the latter warned him, dropping his voice a little. "Tell me some more about the place,"
"Vell, they've got some stock, but they don't theem to know much about it," the other continued. "I buy a bill of goods, about forty pounds, but the funny part of it wath that they didn't theem to care much whether I bought or not. Not like me when I take my boot-catheth out."
"Think," Benskin begged, "was there anything about the place itself which struck you as being different from an ordinary warehouse?"
Mr. Klein reflected.
"Vell, there were a good many people hanging about for a small bithneth, and except for one man upstairs, and another down, they none of them theemed to know very much about what there wath to thell. One of the bosses came out of the officth and thpoke to me, but he didn't theem to take any interest in what I wath buying. Now, when I go in anywhere else to buy goods, the bosses take off their coats and try to thell everything in the place. I think he wath upthet, though. He had a little accident."
"What sort of an accident?"
"He gave me a good thigar," Mr. Klein explained, "lit one himthelf, and thpat a front tooth out. Just had it put in, he thaid."
For a moment Benskin sat quite still. Notwithstanding the sordidness of his surroundings, it was for him a brief period of unadulterated joy. Then he pushed his tankard away, ordered fresh ones for his guest and himself, and relit his pipe.
"Moses Klein," he said, "you owe me a good turn, don't you?"
"Ain't that why I'm here?" the other rejoined reproachfully. "I didn't want to come buying no leather from a thtick-in-the-mud firm like Ellis and Humphreys."
"Then just remember everything you can about that man Ellis's appearance. I've got to know exactly what he looked like."
Mr. Klein accepted his second tankard and warmed to his task,
"What he looked like," he declared, "wath a toff. He wath wearing clothes like they wear in those thwell warehouses in St. Thomas' Street, where they've got capital that runs into hundredth of thouthandth of poundth. Kind of a black coat, linen as though it had just come out of the laundry bathket, pressed pants, patent boots, and a gold thigarette case thticking out of hith pocket. He got no hair on his face, queer sort of eyes that theemed to be wandering about all the time, and one of them black felt hats with the top squashed in, like Rachel—that's my wife—wanth me to get. He looked a great deal too much of a toff for a thmall firm like they must be."
Benskin held out his hand.
"We're quits, Klein," he said. "I'm glad I got your boy off that day. Drink up your beer and then I must go. I want you, if you don't mind, to just get me a taxi. I mustn't be seen in these streets for an hour or so."
Mr. Klein obeyed cheerfully, and Benskin, making his way to London Bridge Station, spent ten minutes in a telephone booth, and half an hour over a luncheon which he was grimly aware might be his last on earth.
IT was an evil afternoon down Bermondsey way. There was no absolute fog, but a mist had driven in from the river, and, combined with the drizzling rain, had created an atmosphere of obscurity and drear depression. With the electric light turned on in his little office, Mr. Ellis, proprietor of the firm of Ellis and Humphreys, with the help of an envelope-cutter and a waste-paper basket, dealt at lightning speed with a mass of correspondence arrived by the foreign post, a correspondence which seemed a little excessive for the state of the business. By his side, watching keenly, and every now and then accepting one of the letters passed on to his keeping, stood the pseudo Mr. Humphreys, lank, lugubrious, yet alert, at times singularly reminiscent of Mr. Amos Wheatley, the cotton millionaire. They reached the end of the pile with only muttered words passing from one to the other. Then Mr. Ellis leaned back in his chair.
"You know how to deal with the letters you have," he said. "Take them down to Riverside Street and attend to them there."
Mr. Humphreys glanced curiously at his partner.
"Anything wrong with this place?" he enquired.
His companion tapped a cigarette of fragrant quality upon the desk and lit it.
"Nothing actually wrong," he admitted. "I've got one of my psychic fits, that's all. I feel there's something moving around us I don't understand."
He touched a bell. A salesman in a linen overall answered the summons.
"Britten," he asked, "what was the report about that man Klein who was in this morning and bought some goods?"
"Perfectly straightforward, sir," was the prompt reply. "He has a small business in the Bethnal Green Road—been there for four or five years. He's a shoe-manufacturer all right—a Jew too. Just the type who goes about trying new places to buy a little cheaper."
"Did he seem curious—ask for any other goods—make any remark about the stock?"
"Nothing to excite any suspicion, sir," the salesman assured his principal. "The only thing he did enquire twice about was whether we had any American offal for sale."
"You didn't take him down to the cellar?" the latter asked quickly.
"No, sir, I told him that we didn't stock it—not in our line at all."
Mr. Ellis reflected for several moments.
"You're a practical man, aren't you, Britten?" he asked. "Our predecessors here insisted that you knew all about the business."
"I ought to, sir. I've been in the trade for over twenty years."
"In this man Klein's class of manufacturing, should you have thought that he would have used American offal?"
"No, I don't think I should," Britten acknowledged thoughtfully. "Max delivered the goods and had a careful look around. He certainly had no heel-building machinery."
Mr. Ellis scowled into space. Customers asking for American offal were very unwelcome visitors in Endale Street just then.
"How many barrels are there in the cellar?" he asked.
The man counted upon his fingers.
"Well, they're sold, and we may as well get them out of the way at once. Address the labels—Mr. Jacob Rubel, Leather Dealer, Barcelona. Telephone for a dray and have them delivered on board the Juanita, lying at Riverside Street Docks, this afternoon. And, Britten?"
"If that fellow Klein comes in again, I'll see him myself."
"Very good, sir."
The man hurried off. Mr. Ellis opened the door and glanced out. In the warehouse was gloom and silence. In the far distance Britten was speaking into a wall telephone to the railway company. He stepped back into the office.
"What's the trouble?" his partner asked him again. "No warnings in, are there?"
"Not a word," the other acknowledged. "By all the rules of the game, we should be as safe as though we were in the clouds. I doubled the watchers yesterday. Ludoff himself has a taxicab outside the big warehouse at the corner. No one could escape him. It's this damned weather gets on my nerves. Carry on here for a time, Maurice—don't go to Riverside Street."
The principal of the firm walked into the warehouse, and, pushing open a swing door at the further end, crossed another room apparently full of linen-shrouded merchandise. At the far end was a door let into the wall and almost unnoticeable. He opened this by touching a spring, passed along a passage, descended two steps, and with a Yale key opened a second and more formidable-looking door of sheet iron. Here he stepped into a different atmosphere. His feet fell upon a soft Turkey carpet. He touched an electric switch and revealed a very delightful man's sitting room, the only drawback to which seemed to be a curious absence of windows. A correctly attired manservant came hurrying in.
"No reports?" Mr. Ellis asked swiftly.
"Nothing at all, sir."
"Both wires in order?"
"Absolutely, sir. I tested them a few minutes back."
"Go and see if Ludoff is still on his taxicab."
The man disappeared for a moment and returned.
"Still there, sir."
"The car is in the shed?"
"The engine has been going since eight o'clock, sir. Francis is at the wheel. He has fixed a new number plate and there are two spare ones under the cushions."
"I'm clearing out for a time," Mr. Ellis announced abruptly. "Everything in order at Riverside Street?"
"Everything, sir. Were you thinking of moving there?"
"For a night or two, perhaps," his master decided thoughtfully. "Take every precaution, but if you're sure the coast is clear and there's no one hanging around, come down at eight o'clock. I want to go to the opera to-night, if possible."
"The usual code warning, sir, if there's anything disturbing?"
Mr. Ellis nodded.
"They won't be changed until to-morrow. Mix me a strong brandy cocktail, Morrison."
The man crossed the room noiselessly, opened a handsome walnut cabinet, produced the necessary bottles, with some ice from a zinc pail, and a silver shaker. Mr. Ellis drained the contents of a beautiful Venetian glass which was handed to him a minute or two later and turned away. Outside the door he hesitated and took a fateful decision. Instead of making his way back to the warehouse, he suddenly descended a narrow flight of stairs, and disappeared.
The drayman with his load of twenty-seven barrels, and a very satisfactory tip in his pocket, rumbled up Endale Street, crossed Market Street, and on his way along St. Thomas' Street was mildly surprised by a signal to stop from a uniformed policeman who stepped out from the kerb.
"What's wrong, Governor?" he asked cheerfully. "Ain't exceeding the speed limit, am I?"
A man in a mackintosh buttoned up to his chin, who had been loitering behind the policeman, stepped forward.
"Obey orders quickly," he directed. "I am Detective Benskin of Scotland Yard and there are several others of us here. Turn up under that arch to your right and stop at the second lamp."
"Crikey, Guv'nor!" the man exclaimed, as he whipped up his horse. "I ain't stolen these barrels, I can promise you that—just got 'em from Ellis and Humphreys in Endale Street. Ain't nothing wrong with them, is there?"
"We are going to see," was the terse reply.
The dray, followed by the policemen and Benskin, was driven on a few yards and turned in under one of those great gloomy arches, tubular chasms of mystery and darkness. At a sign from the policeman, who jumped on to the step, the driver brought his horse to a standstill under the second of the flickering, insufficient lamps. Down some dank, stone steps came clattering half a dozen more constables, one of whom produced a bag of tools and mounted the dray. Its driver lit his pipe.
"My Gawd!" he muttered between his teeth, and wondered no longer at the magnitude of the tip which reposed in his waistcoat pocket.
The top of the first barrel was soon off. Inside were closely packed fragments of reddish-brown leather, which had evidently been cut through by a machine and left in odd strips, here large, here small. From top to bottom two stalwart policemen thrust in their hands and emptied the contents of the barrel on to the dray. When they had finished they stood up, waiting for instructions.
"Another one," Benskin ordered.
They got to work and repeated the process. This time, however, they were barely halfway through when one of the policemen uttered a little exclamation. From his fingers dangled a necklace of glittering stones. They all gathered around to stare at it with fascinated eyes—a cascade of falling light, glowing and fading with the flickering of the poor illumination. Then Benskin's voice was heard, sharp and incisive.
"Four of you guard the dray. Bicycled police far Endale Street. Rush the warehouse and have your firearms ready."
A dozen men or more hurried to the bicycles which were leaning against the wall. Benskin himself leapt into a small police car which seemed to have made a miraculous appearance. In less than five minutes it drew up outside the wide-opened doors of Messrs. Ellis and Humphreys. A warehouseman, flicking some sides of leather with a feather brush, looked up enquiringly at their entrance, but made no effort to stop them. Benskin was the first to mount the stairs and push open the door leading to the office. Britten, in his long linen duster, was apparently engaged in sorting some skins at the counter. The only other occupant of the place was a man seated at a desk, typing some letters. Benskin, with his automatic in his hand, and stooping a little as he ran, crossed the floor in half a dozen strides.
"Hands up!" he shouted, and his voice was like the crack of a revolver shot.
Mr. Humphreys, of Ellis and Humphreys, looked longingly at the drawer towards which his hand had wandered. Then he glanced into the steely blue eyes of the man who stood just out of reach, noted the tension of the forefinger, and his hesitation vanished. He raised his hands high above his head.
"Is this a hold-up?" he asked calmly. "We have fourteen pounds and a small bill of exchange in the safe."
"Be quiet, Amos Wheatley, or whatever you call yourself down here!" Benskin interrupted. "Where's the chief?"
The shadow of a smile flickered across those grim lips,
"He had a psychic feeling," was the dry response.
THAT night the evening papers were full of the dramatic recovery of a large portion of the jewellery stolen in the great night raid upon the Kensington emporium, the capture of one of the leaders of the gang, and the detention of a number of its subordinates. Scotland Yard regained all its former prestige, compliments were showered upon the police, and leading articles acclaimed their acumen. Benskin was warmly congratulated by the Chief Commissioner and almost embraced by Houlden. Photographs appeared everywhere of the bogus warehouse and the secret abode adjoining it, which, without a doubt, had been one of the headquarters of the great criminal organisation. Nevertheless, Benskin slept with a sob in his heart, for, somewhere under the murky skies, Matthew was smiling.
DETECTIVE BENSKIN found the Sub-Commissioner waiting for him impatiently, when, in response to an urgent message, he hurried upstairs to his room. The latter looked up from his desk, pointed to a chair, and, with a sardonic smile, handed across the letter which be had been studying.
"Fellow may be a bloodthirsty brute, all right," he remarked, "but he certainly keeps his sense of humour."
"Matthew!" Benskin exclaimed eagerly.
The other nodded. Benskin smoothed out the double sheet of notepaper, and read:
Ritz Hotel, London. 17th September.
Dear Mr. Sub-Commissioner,
This is to let you and your bright-eyed boy know that I am settling down in London, and so far like it very much. You are giving me better sport than I expected; in fact, up to the present, I am afraid, honours can be considered only even.
I am still puzzled about that Endale Street raid. It was most annoying to lose any portion of the results of one of the most brilliantly planned burglaries of modern times, and also one of my most valuable men. However, the Ellacott jewels are far better than I expected, and those few trifles at Howson's were worth picking up.
I had some idea of paying you a call at Scotland Yard, but I am afraid that I might find your hospitality a little too pressing. I can quite understand your anxiety to meet me, though, and I will give you a chance. Madame la Comtesse de Grignolles—I hope I have her name right—is entertaining some foreign notabilities to-night at her mansion in Grosvenor Square. I propose to be present. It would make matters easier for me if you would leave a card of invitation with the major-domo, in a blank envelope, if you please—I will fill in the name myself. If, however, you do not know Madame la Comtesse well enough to impose so far upon her hospitality, I shall find my way in somehow or other. To catch a glimpse of those wonderful jewels, I would run even greater risks.
Au revoir, Mr. Sub-Commissioner. Of course if I am thoroughly out of luck, we may meet again very soon indeed—you as host and I as guest—but I cling to my star,
"Do you imagine these communications are genuine?" Major Houlden asked, as the detective folded up and returned the letter. The latter nodded.
"I haven't a doubt of it," he replied. "The fellow has just that sort of humour, and at the same time there is a purpose underlying all these jeering letters. He wants to put us off our poise, to make us just a little too eager."
"I shall warn the Comtesse, of course," the Sub-Commissioner observed.
"What shall you say, sir?"
"I shall just tell her," the other explained, "that we have reason to believe that an international jewel thief intends to be present at her reception to-night uninvited."
"Why not go further than that, sir?" Benskin suggested. "Get her to leave a blank card of invitation which we can trace with the major-domo—a small cross at the back, or something of that sort?"
"Not a bad idea." Houlden mused.
"You see," the other went on, "I have a theory of my own about Matthew. I think that he is undoubtedly the most brilliant criminal of modern times—a genius to his finger tips—and, that being so, he is also, naturally, just a little mad. I figure it out that excitement has become an absolute necessity to him, that he is getting madder every day, and that he deliberately plays for and plans tremendous risks. After all, he is only human. Some day he will make the one small mistake. And then...."
Benskin broke off in his sentence. For a man of mild features and speech he was, for those few seconds, unrecognisable. His mouth was set like a trap and there were two deep lines starting from its corners, cutting into his cheek. There was blood-lust in his eyes. The Sub-Commissioner watched him curiously.
"Go quietly about this job, young fellow," he advised kindly. "Remember, as Matthew has pointed out himself, honours are even up till now. It was a great feat to get back a hundred thousand pounds' worth of jewellery, even if we missed Matthew himself. When his time comes, he'll kill a dozen men sooner than be taken alive."
"If he has the chance," Benskin murmured.
"Lady Muriel will have a card for the reception, of course, and I shall get one for you," Houlden went on. "Are there any other arrangements you would like to make?"
"I should like two of our men in the hall, wearing Madame de Grignolles' livery," Benskin begged, "and I should like two or three more in plain clothes mixed up with the ordinary police who will be on duty outside. If by any chance we are able to track him down, the getting away from Grosvenor Square ought not to be too easy, even for Matthew."
The Sub-Commissioner nodded.
"Give your own orders to the inspector, Benskin," he agreed. "And good luck!"
THE reception at Number 12a Grosvenor Square was long talked about amongst those who were fortunate enough to be present. The whole of the stately hall, the great staircase leading to the first floor, and the reception rooms, wherever space was to be found, were banked with marvellous roses, to procure which every corner of England and Southern Europe had been searched. The greater part of the new Russian Ballet, then at the height of its success, had been engaged, and the two most famous opera singers of the day had risked the breaking of a contract to be present. Royalty had expressed its deep regret at being able to pay only a flying visit on a night of many engagements, but towards the hour when the supper rooms were to be opened, rumours of a Lucullan banquet seemed to have brought together a crowd which tried to its utmost capacity one of the largest houses in London.
A little breathless, Benskin and Lady Muriel, who had been dining together at the Ritz Grill, were fortunate enough about halfway through the proceedings to find a couple of chairs near the door of the main reception room.
"For heaven's sake, tell me what it is all about!" he begged. "First of all, who is the Comtesse de Grignolles?"
"They call her 'The Knight's Lady'," Lady Muriel confided, "because she is always in shining armour. She is supposed to have several million pounds' worth of jewels—all diamonds."
"How did she come by them?"
"The usual way," his companion explained, with perhaps just a shade of bitterness in her tone. "Her father was an American—an oil, or railway king, or something of the sort. She met her husband in Paris—bought him for the amount of his debts and half a million—and he died, crushed, within a year or two. She owns the ancestral château at Grignolles, where she spends a few months of every year, and that, I understand, is how she became acquainted with the guest of the evening. His chateau is the adjoining one, the other side of Grignolles."
"Tell me about him."
"Ah, now you come to some one really distinguished. I only know a few of his titles, but Monsieur le Général, Duc d'Angoulême and Saint Creux is the only one of the real aristocracy of France who made a great name during the War. He was a very brilliant leader and tactician, and, but for his birth, they say that he would have received a far greater share of the credit for the saving of Paris and Verdun than he did. However, he has nearly all the honours possible. I am not at all sure that he isn't a Marshal of France, and, though he retired from active service as soon as the War was over, his name is still one to conjure with. ... I believe they're going in to supper! Look, isn't it rather like a royal procession? These parvenu women turn everything into a circus."
The great crowd was dividing to make an avenue down which a double file of people were crossing the floor towards the banqueting rooms, where a famous band was playing. The Comtesse, her fingers upon the sleeve of her distinguished guest, and diamonds which had graced the occupant of a throne glittering upon her neck and bosom, stopped every now and then to speak to a friend. She was a woman of medium height, fair, not without a certain presence, but lacking altogether the naturalness and grand air which would have enabled her to pass with dignity through such an assembly. As she drew near to them, she recognised Lady Muriel, and paused.
"Lady Muriel," she gushed, "I haven't seen you before, have I? I'm afraid you weren't able to get near us in the reception rooms. I know you would like to meet my neighbour. Duc, this is Lady Muriel Carter—Général, le Duc d'Angoulême."
The Duc acknowledged the introduction with a lack of enthusiasm for which a thousand similar exploits during the evening were certainly some excuse. He seemed a great deal older than either of them had expected. His face was deeply lined and his expression one of hopeless boredom. At Lady Muriel's few murmured words in perfect French, however, he relaxed very slightly and answered her in the same language.
"Enchanté, Lady Muriel!" he murmured. "I have met connections of yours at your Embassy. This is what my neighbour, the Comtesse calls 'meeting a few friends'!" he added, with a wave of the hand—an almost pathetic gesture.
His hostess laughed as she drew him away.
"Ah, but Duc," she reminded him, "think what a quiet life we lead at Grignolles."
Lady Muriel and her companion resumed their seats. The latter's eyes still followed the disappearing figure of the Comtesse.
"That woman," he declared tersely, "ought to be locked up. You know better than I do, Lady Muriel, but are those diamonds all real?"
"Absolutely," she assured him. "It is her boast that she has never owned a single article of artificial jewellery in her life and I believe that it is the truth, too. Last year she had a wonderful necklace stolen at Cannes. She didn't mind. She was wearing a more gorgeous one still the next night. The single diamond she has around her neck—'The Tear Drop' they call it—really did belong to the Czarina. She is supposed to have given three hundred thousand pounds for it."
"Seems to me," he remarked, "that I had better set about looking for Matthew."
"Oh, do let's have some supper first," she begged. "You're just as likely to find yourself seated next to him as to come across him wandering about. Look, the ordinary people like us are all going in now by the other entrance."
They rose to their feet, but were accosted almost at once by a footman who had made his way through the throng with difficulty. His bow was a little awkward. He spoke in an undertone.
"A guest has just arrived," he announced, "who asked whether a blank card of invitation had been left for him. He was given one by the major-domo."
Benskin's face lit up with anticipation. He was no longer bored.
"Clever fellow!" he exclaimed. "He waited to arrive until he knew that he wouldn't have to face the introductions."
"Parsons is trying to keep him in sight," the man went on. "I was to tell you that he is tall, with a great deal of dark hair, a single eye-glass, about thirty-four or thirty-five years old, and of slightly foreign or Jewish appearance. He enquired the way into the supper rooms."
"He would," Benskin murmured. "Give orders at the door that he is not allowed to leave until I have seen him. If he makes any attempt to get away, he is to be detained until you can find me. His blank invitation card will be quite sufficient excuse."
The man assented comprehendingly and took his leave. Lady Muriel sighed.
"I'm just as keen as you are," she assured him, "but much greedier. Do you know that they have ortolans stuffed with truffles, vol-au-vents and pâtis which came over by air this afternoon from Strasbourg, and baskets full of real strawberries?"
"On the whole," he said, "it is perhaps as well that the supper room is our obvious destination."
The supper fulfilled every anticipation, but the hour which followed was a little breathless. The rooms were now packed to such an extent that to move more than a yard at a time was difficult. Benskin managed at last, however, to come once more into touch with his friend the pseudo-footman.
"I've scarcely lost sight of him," the latter confided, "until a few minutes ago. He was very near the Comtesse then, but I simply couldn't move. He was between those two pillars when I saw him last. Chalmers is on the other side and Parsons between us. If he comes back this way at all, he'll have to pass one of us."
"You're sure you've fixed it so that he can't get away?"
"Absolutely, sir," the man declared. "We didn't want to run any risks, so I've had more men sent up from the Yard. We have the back entrance guarded, as well as the front, and Brooks is waiting by the side of his hat and coat in the cloak room."
"Good!" Benskin approved. "I'll work my way down there, but I shall have to leave it to you as much as possible. If it's the man we're hoping for, he'd recognise me."
Presently there was a little stir and people began to give way. La Comtesse de Grignolles and her distinguished guest were crossing the floor towards the concert room to hear the world's greatest singer. As they came in sight, Benskin, responding to the eager pressure of Lady Muriel's fingers upon his arm, stood on tiptoe and watched. The Comtesse was still smiling to right and left, still throwing a word here and there to acquaintances, but there was a distinct change in her expression. She seemed to have grown paler and her left hand, flashing with diamonds, was lifted to her throat. As she passed by, Lady Muriel gave a gasp.
"You'd better get downstairs," she whispered. "After all, she's a brave woman. Can't you see what's happened?—and she knows."
He looked at her enquiringly and she leaned a little closer.
"'The Tear Drop' diamond has gone!"
PARSONS was modest but triumphant as he led Benskin by a short cut to the back stairs.
"He was almost too clever for us, after all, sir," he confided. "He wasn't going to bother about his coat and hat. I tracked him down to the hall and Chalmers found him in the library, trying to open the French windows. There's a garden gate out into the mews and a clear exit that way for all he knew. The gate's locked, but I expect he had a key."
"Did he say anything?" Benskin asked quickly.
"He didn't say much, but he was a nasty customer to handle—not much of a fighter, perhaps, but he was as slippery as they make them."
"Where is he now?" Benskin enquired, as they emerged from the crush and hurried down the well staircase.
"In the little waiting-room on the ground floor, where the housekeeper interviews tradespeople. This way, sir. This is the room."
Parsons threw open the door of a plainly but comfortably furnished apartment of the waiting-room type. There were rows of chairs along the wall, a table covered with magazines in the middle of the floor, and other evidences that it was a room in which callers of the business type were received. One plain-clothes policeman was standing just inside the door; another close to the table. Lounging upon the latter, and apparently absorbed in a copy of Punch, was the man answering to Parson's description. There was a slight hook to his nose—otherwise he would have been more than passably good-looking. He wore his clothes correctly, but it was obvious that he was making a great effort to appear at his ease. He looked up coolly as Benskin entered and threw down the copy of Punch.
"Are you the person from whom I may demand an explanation of what has happened to me?" he enquired.
Benskin studied him closely. He was not entirely the type of man he had expected, but Matthew was clever enough to see to that.
"Yes, I suppose I am," he answered. "At any rate, I am responsible for your detention."
"Then perhaps you will explain at once."
"That is what I am here for. You came in without a proper card of invitation and found a blank one waiting for you."
"What the devil concern is that of yours?"
"I am Detective Benskin of Scotland Yard," was the curt reply. "You had better answer my questions. To whom did you apply for that blank card?"
The suspected person appeared to consider the advisability of answering.
"I needn't have had one at all to get in," he temporised. "It was quite easy."
"Nevertheless," Benskin insisted, "to whom did you apply for it?"
He leaned a little forward across the table, studying the other's face. With every moment his satisfaction increased. Eyed at close quarters there was something not quite natural about that black hair; the curve of the lips, too, was unusual.
"I asked the major-domo here to procure me one," the intruder admitted at last. "I had a reason."
"Show it to me," Benskin insisted.
The man made a little grimace, but threw it upon the table. Benskin picked it up and turned it over. On the back, in the left-hand corner, was a small cross.
"What is your name?" Benskin demanded.
"Vandoorn," was the surly reply, after a moment's pause.
"Any one here to identify you?"
"Several. Lord Partington for one."
Benskin whispered in the ear of the man standing near the door, who at once nodded and withdrew.
"You said just now," Benskin went on, turning back again, "that you wished to be present to-night for a certain reason. Was that reason connected in any way—"
"I'm damned if I answer any more questions!" Vandoorn declared, springing to his feet. "Curse you, what are you all on to me for? I've a right to be here, since I'm clever enough to get a card. Let me go!"
"Presently," Benskin replied, "First of all, I am going to search you. Up with them!" he shouted. "Like hell! No good trying that, Vandoorn."
The young man's hand had stolen behind him, but Benskin was quicker. His own automatic was pointed straight across the table. Vandoorn's hands were unwillingly raised.
"Get him by the arms," Benskin directed briefly. "Handcuff him if he's awkward."
For the first time the captured man was losing his composure.
In the grasp of the brawny, plain-clothes policeman he was helpless, but he nevertheless struggled madly.
"I won't be searched," he insisted. "You have no right to do anything of the sort."
"Haven't I? We can argue that later."
With a significant little glance across the table, the policeman drew from his captive's pocket a small automatic and threw it amongst the magazines. Benskin took it up and knocked out the cartridges. A pocketbook followed, and suddenly, in the midst of a paroxysm of struggles, the searcher, a little out of breath, produced a fragment of platinum chain to which was attached a marvellously shaped gem. It lay there sparkling in the light—immense, astounding, a single diamond in the shape of a huge teardrop.
"So that's that!" Benskin remarked calmly. "How did you manage it, my friend?"
"I didn't manage it at all," was the muttered reply. "It's my own property."
The plain-clothes policeman laughed and even Benskin smiled. The man who had called himself Vandoorn looked as though he could have killed both of them. Then there was a knock at the door. Benskin covered the jewel with his handkerchief.
"Come in," he directed shortly.
The Comtesse de Grignolles entered, followed by a short, fair-haired man who looked around enquiringly.
"My name's Partington," he announced. "What's the trouble here?"
"May I ask whether you recognise this man?" Benskin asked.
Lord Partington screwed in his eyeglass and nodded.
"Why," he said, "it's old Vandoorn's son, isn't it?"
"That's right, sir," the person addressed assented, glancing defiantly at Benskin. "I don't know what the trouble is. They tried to stop my leaving the house, searched me, and now they're calling me a thief.''
"You might mention," Benskin intervened, "that you were here with a bogus card of invitation, that you were endeavouring to leave the house by the window, and that when we searched you we discovered, first of all a fully charged automatic, and secondly, this!"
He lifted the handkerchief. The Comtesse gave a little cry and sprang forward. She was about to grasp the jewel. Suddenly she stopped and stared at it transfixed.
"What does this mean?" she demanded, looking at Benskin,
The man Vandoorn broke in eagerly, and even in that moment of trouble Benskin was swift to notice the change from the cynical voice of the Gentile to the natural guttural of the Jew.
"I can tell you all about it, lady. These men from Scotland Yard got it into their heads that I'm a jewel thief and that I was here to steal your ladyship's 'Tear Drop.' Now, my lord, stand by me—what's my job? What's my father's job?"
"Vandoorns," Lord Partington confided, "are perhaps the most expert manufacturers of high-class imitation jewellery in the world."
"That's right," the young man declared eagerly. "We are. We've got an order—I can't tell you from whom—we don't disclose our clients' names—but we've got an order to imitate the Comtesse de Grignolles' famous 'Tear Drop,' 'Alexandra's Tear Drop' it's called in the trade. Well, there it is, on the table. We've done the job, but dad wasn't quite satisfied. He told me to get a card for this show to-night and to come and have a look at the real thing as close as I could. We daren't ask the Comtesse to oblige us, because naturally she wouldn't want it copied, but I knew the steward here and I got him to leave me a card. That's why I came. I saw the 'Tear Drop' close to, earlier in the evening, and I found out where we ain't quite right. That's all about me, and here's the whole of Scotland Yard jumped on my neck. If the 'Tear Drop's' been stolen, that ain't nothing to do with me. We aren't thieves and don't need to be. Go and ask our bankers, if you don't believe me. Dad's worth fifty thou, if he's worth sixpence."
There was a moment's silence. Benskin found it hard to collect his thoughts. Somewhere there was trickery—but where?
"Why do you carry that thing?" he asked, pointing to the automatic.
"Ask your grandmother," was the angry rejoinder. "You don't suppose we don't have to handle plenty of the real stuff too! The gems we copy have to be done from the original. There isn't one of us in the business who don't carry a gun."
There was a knock at the door. The major-domo of the household entered. He carried a telegram upon a salver.
"My lady," he said, presenting it to the Comtesse, "your secretary opened this and thought that perhaps you ought to see it at once."
The Comtesse picked it up. As she read, her eyes grew wide with surprise.
"Can any one tell me what this means?" she enquired, and read it aloud:
GRIGNOLLES, SEPTEMBER 17TH. DEEPLY REGRET IMPORTANT AFFAIRS PREVENT MY LEAVING AS HOPED THIS WEEK. WILL PAY MY RESPECTS WHEN NEXT IN LONDON. —D'ANGOULÊME.
Everyone looked at everyone else in mute stupefaction. Benskin, however, was already three parts of the way towards the solution. He stood by the Comtesse and his blue eyes were insistent.
"Madame," he demanded, "how well did you know the Duc d'Angoulême before this evening?"
The Comtesse palpably hesitated.
"We are neighbours at Grignolles," she faltered. "We have exchanged visits."
"To what extent? Have you ever been in the same room with him before?"
"Not exactly. When I returned his visit, I saw him walking in the garden."
"You were surprised, then," Benskin went on mercilessly, "when he proposed this visit to you?"
"I was rather," the Comtesse admitted.
Benskin swung round to the major-domo.
"Is Monsieur le Duc still upstairs?" he asked.
"Monsieur le Duc has charged me with his excuses to your ladyship," the major-domo announced, turning to the Comtesse. "He complained of fatigue and indisposition. I took him down the back stairs to avoid the crowd and found him a taxicab. He went off two minutes ago."
"He was an impostor!" the Comtesse gasped.
"He was an impostor," Benskin acknowledged grimly, "who has gone off with your 'Tear Drop' diamond."
"And you allowed it!" she exclaimed. "You—the police—here all the time—and you allowed it!"
Benskin drew himself up.
"Madame la Comtesse," he said coldly, "you present to all London the Duc d'Angoulême, a distinguished soldier of France—your neighbour—your intimate friend. The police are not seers. We give you credit for knowing the person for whom you design so wonderful an entertainment."
The Comtesse had nothing to say. There was still another silence and Benskin turned towards the door. At that moment, it was his one desire that nobody should see his face. Somewhere in the suburbs, at a comfortable forty miles an hour, with lights blazing down upon a bogus number, and a bogus footman on the box, a huge limousine was rushing into the country. Inside a man with a cigarette in his mouth was calmly changing his clothes, discarding the somewhat conspicuous uniform of a fully decorated general of France for the lounge habiliments of a gentleman of leisure.
BENSKIN and Lady Muriel, his sometime associate, were dining together "chez Francis", a small, half-French, half-English restaurant in the purlieus of Soho, recently opened by the late manager of a popular West End grill-room. They were ensconced at one of the most desirable corner tables. They had not met for a week, and Lady Muriel was perfectly well aware that she was looking her best--her new hat, purchased that afternoon, with its Russian effect of grey fur, and a dash of rose colour, was entirely becoming. Nevertheless, her companion had been, even for him, unusually silent.
"I believe," she complained, about halfway through the meal, "that you have a new case on hand. You have scarcely spoken a word for ten minutes."
He smiled and produced a letter from the breast pocket of his coat.
"No new case for me, thank you, Lady Muriel," he declared. "I'm rather silent because you're so good to look at to-night. The old case is quite absorbing enough. Read this letter. It may amuse you."
So he had noticed her hat, after all! Lady Muriel smoothed open the sheet of notepaper and read:
Claridge's Hotel. Thursday.
My dear Benskin,
I am tired of writing to your Chief. He very seldom takes any intelligent notice of the hints I give him, and he never attempts to reply. Surely the agony column of the "Times" is open to all of us.
So you see I am sending you a line instead. Perhaps you will prove yourself a little more intelligent and amenable. I have quite lost my dislike for you since the Grosvenor Square episode. What an awful moment that must have been when you found that you had blundered about Mr. Vandoorn, and that the Duc d'Angoulême had left the party! You must never trust these Anglo-Saxon ladies who have bought their way into the nobility when they talk about their titled friends. They mean well, but the truth is not in them.
Now, you arc wondering, aren't you, what my next exploit is to be? It will be a perfectly tame affair for me if I bring it off whilst you are sitting in your stuffy room at Scotland Yard, pondering. The odds arc so greatly against the detective of average ability who is up against an artist in crime, with my genius and organisation, that I must really give you a hint, Benskin--just something to think about. I don't suppose you will get on the right track until the whole thing is over, but still I shall like to feel that you have had your chance. I am going to steal what is to my mind one of the finest pictures in England, and my favourite master is Gainsborough. Come along, little man! Trot round and get busy!
Lady Muriel laughed till she had to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"Peter," she said--lately she had begun to call him Peter when they were alone--"if ever you take this man, I think that I shall dislike you very much. Fancy a criminal with a sense of humour!"
"At my expense," he reminded her.
"Well, you'll change all that some day," she assured him encouragingly. "What are you doing about the letter?"
"The obvious things," he replied. "That's the worst of our profession--we always have to start by doing the obvious things. A man at the National Gallery is getting me out a list of all the Gainsboroughs on exhibition in England, and privately owned. The Sub and I are going through them to-morrow."
They continued their dinner pleasantly for some short time. Then she leaned forward once more.
"Now that you have got the letter off your mind," she begged, "perhaps you will explain your second lapse this evening. Why are you so interested in those two men on our right?"
"Look at them and answer the question for yourself," he suggested.
She waited for a convenient opportunity and glanced over her shoulder towards the two men who were seated together nearer the centre of the room. Certainly they were a little unusual. One, the younger, might have been a Jew or an inhabitant of one of the eastern counties to which had come centuries ago a sprinkling of Spaniards from Holland. He had curly black hair, extraordinarily protuberant dark eyes, full lips, and an unnaturally fresh complexion. He talked with great animation, although in a low tone, using many gesticulations, and he was so hot that he was continually mopping his forehead with a handkerchief of unsavoury appearance. His companion was a small, fat and dumpy man, ill-dressed in clothes which looked as though they had been slept in for several nights. He wore brown shoes on which reposed the mud of days, thick socks which had descended with concertina effect almost to his ankles, and the variegated pattern of his linen indifferently concealed its griminess. Nevertheless, there stood upon the table a bottle of expensive champagne, empty, and the waiter was just opening a smaller bottle of similar vintage.
"A more unpleasant-looking couple I never saw," Lady Muriel pronounced, when she had completed her scrutiny. "The young man with the bulbous eyes makes me shiver and his companion might have been dragged out of the dust-bin."
"Sheer externals," Benskin murmured. "If you allow yourself to be prejudiced like that, you will never become a detective."
She occupied herself for a moment in choosing a pear.
"I'm sure I don't want to," she declared. "My ambitions are limited to a little pied-à-terre in town--my two rooms in the mews would do quite well--a cottage near a trout stream at home, with a roof that doesn't leak, a horse that would carry me once a week with Desmond's hounds--well, I think that's all for the present."
"It seems a pity," he remarked, "that this profession in which you have already had so many distinguished successes does not really appeal to you."
"Don't gibe, please," she admonished, beginning to peel her pear. "As a means to an end, it is quite all right. I would rather do it, for instance, than serve in a shop, or typewrite or manicure. It's keeping me going nicely, but that's all there is to it. I should like to make some money. Where my fur coat is coming from this season, I haven't the remotest notion."
"The administration is very fair," he reminded her. "If you could prove vital work in connection with the arrest of any criminal for whom there was a reward, you'd get a share."
"Do you think those two men you've scarcely taken your eyes off are criminals?" she asked.
"I haven't the faintest idea," he assured her. "I should think that they would be, either of them, if it were worth their while. Crime is like everything else nowadays, though. To make it pay, it requires a considerable amount of talent. The blunderer never gets anywhere."
"Quite right," she assented, watching her glass being filled. "As a matter of fact, crime as a profession always appealed to me much more than the detection of it, but so much more is required of one in the way of intelligence and resource, and there doesn't seem to be any regular training school. There should be an Academy of Crime, of course, and one shouldn't be allowed to practise until one has taken a degree."
"Failing that," he remarked drily, "I think you do very well as you are."
With the service of coffee, they became enveloped in a faint blue haze, for they were both enthusiastic smokers. Lady Muriel leaned across the table and Benskin flinched. He was always afraid of these more intimate moments. Her lips, when she chose, could be very alluring, and she had the wicked gift of softening her eyes at will.
"I believe you have something on your mind," she whispered. "Is it about me?"
"I have you always too much on my mind," he answered, with futile gallantry.
"You couldn't," she assured him. "I am really good for you. I am an antidote to all the excitements and difficulties of your day. Don't you find me soothing?"
She laughed at him delightfully.
"Tell me," she begged
"Those men are on my mind," he confessed, dropping his voice, "I have had my successes, of course, and my failures, but I shall never be a successful detective, for one reason."
"And that, dear modest friend?"
"My memory. The face of the younger of those two men who have just gone out ought not to be forgotten. Subconsciously I remember it; actually, I can connect it with nothing."
She smiled with gentle derision.
"Even I," she confided, "can tell you where you saw it."
"Then do," he said.
"You saw his photograph in the Daily Sketch and perhaps the Daily Mirror this morning. He was an exhibitor at a bird show in the Agricultural Hall. His name is Chittuck, he comes from Norwich, and he won the first prize for canaries. I believe that he is also in business as a shoemaker. To tell you the truth, I've only just remembered myself where I saw his face."
He looked at her for a moment and then laughed softly--laughed until little lines spread out by the side of those ingenuous blue eyes. Yet, when he became serious again, he was very serious indeed.
"You are quite right," he exclaimed. "I saw the picture in the Sketch, but, alas, I never read the letterpress."
PETER BENSKIN made a model tourist. He came down to breakfast in the coffee room of the Maid's Head Hotel at Norwich punctually at nine o'clock, swinging a camera, and with a guide-book to the city in his hand. He ate bacon and eggs with appetite and forbore to grumble at the coffee. Furthermore, he allowed himself afterwards to be shown Queen Elizabeth's bedroom, although he hastily negatived the suggestion that he might be allowed to sleep in it for the night. He accepted the services of a guide to show him over the Cathedral and the Strangers' Hall and spent the whole of the morning inspecting these places, In the afternoon he poked about by himself amongst the antique shops and the picturesque by-ways of the ancient city, and it was only when dusk fell that he embarked upon the real purpose of his visit to the eastern counties. Then, after discreet enquiries, he took one of the narrow streets running eastwards from the Cathedral and walked on until he reached a gloomy archway, by the side of which, on the red-brick wall, was a brass plate, with the inscription:
Chittuck and Baynes
Children's Boot and Shoe Manufacturers
Here he turned in, and was proceeding along a cobbled way towards a good-sized and brilliantly illuminated square factory, separated from him by a tangled waste of what had probably once been cottage gardens, when he became aware of a smaller building on his right-hand side, upon the door of which was a sign engraved:
He paused and glanced through the uncurtained window. Mr. Chittuck, with a canary upon each shoulder, one on his head, and another pecking at his collar, was standing at a desk, writing in a ledger. Benskin knocked at the door and a high-pitched, eastern counties voice bade him enter. He stepped in, closed the door behind him, and saluted the man whom he had come to visit.
"What can I do for you, sir?" the latter asked briskly.
"My name is Bennett," Benskin lied. "Are you Mr. Chittuck, the famous canary breeder?"
The young man had his pen in his mouth for the moment, whilst he carefully blotted his latest entry, but he signified assent with a nod.
"I saw your canaries at the Agricultural Hall on Tuesday," the newcomer continued. "Marvellous birds!"
"The best in the world," was the terse response.
"I should like to acquire a few of the male songsters myself. Have you any of the prize winners for sale?"
"Not one--sold the lot--all to one man."
"Dear me!" Benskin exclaimed, in a tone of concern. "That's hard luck. All to one man, eh?"
"That's so. These birds I have with me here are all pets. I shouldn't ever part with them, although they're poor songsters. Those others were bred to sell and to show. Sorry, sir. Look around next time you're in the city."
Benskin, although he was receiving scant encouragement, showed no signs of hurrying away. He moved, instead, a little nearer to the desk, and stood beside the canary breeder.
"You couldn't tell me, I suppose," he asked insinuatingly, "to whom you sold them?"
"No, I couldn't," was the prompt reply, "and it wouldn't be any good to you if I did. He's a wealthy man and he wouldn't part with one of them for its weight in gold."
"Nevertheless--you don't happen to remember his name?" Benskin persisted.
The young man, who had begun once more to write in his ledger, turned around and faced his questioner. His red lips protruded, his eyes seemed more unpleasant than ever.
"What business is it of yours whom I sold them to?" he demanded. "I tell you he wouldn't part with one of them. Isn't that enough for you?"
Benskin glanced over his shoulder. There was no doubt that the little waiting-room behind--a room, it appeared, devoted to travellers' samples--was empty. Nevertheless, he dropped his voice.
"I am very anxious," he confided, "to discover the present whereabouts of the man who bought your canaries. What name shall we give him? It doesn't really matter, does it? 'Matthew the Killer' he was once called by the Force."
There was a queer silence, broken only by a sharp intake of breath on the part of Mr. Chittuck, and a hopeful chirp from one of the birds which had at last succeeded in balancing itself upon its master's collar. Then the pen slipped from the latter's nerveless fingers and fell spluttering on to the floor. One very dirty hand, scarcely adorned by a palpable imitation diamond ring, gripped the side of the desk. He stared at his harmless-looking visitor, and he was a man very much afraid.
"Who are you?" he muttered.
"I am from Scotland Yard, of course," Benskin admitted. "I don't wish you any harm, Chittuck. We've got nothing against you just for the present, except that we know that you've had goods from Ellis and Humphreys and that you're one of the gang, but we want Matthew--we want him like hell."
"How did you tumble to this?"
"Luck," was the frank confession. "Sheer, downright luck! We've got a four- or five-page record of Matthew's weaknesses, various disguises he's made use of, his habits, and every particular we could collect about him at Scotland Yard. One of these weaknesses has always been a partiality for canaries. He's never been without them. Now, when the show came on, we thought it just worth while to have a man at the Agricultural Hall."
"Gawd!" Mr. Chittuck gasped, dabbing some of the unhealthy perspiration form his forehead.
"I must tell you that we weren't particularly fortunate there," Benskin continued. "We had a good man watching your exhibit, but the transaction was done too quickly. We were never able to get more than the faintest description of the purchaser. Still, in the morning there was your picture in the Sketch, and one happened to remember that the firm of Chittuck and Baynes had goods--were they always leather, I wonder, Mr. Chittuck?--sent them from the late firm of Ellis and Humphreys, of Endale Street."
"Blast the picture!"
"You are entitled to do so," Benskin sympathised. "If I had not happened to be dining at the same little restaurant the night before last and expressed some slight curiosity as to where I'd seen your face before, the letterpress underneath the picture would have escaped my notice, and you would have been spared this visit. As it is, however, there is no reason why it should not be a friendly one. I understand that this is a genuine business of yours, Mr. Chittuck. You are doing well, eh?"
"I am doing what you'll tell me that I've never done before," was the fierce reply. "I'm making money fast and I'm making it honestly. We are working overtime and I've orders enough on the books to last us two years. I've got a good working partner, although he ain't much to look at--a safe, respectable man--and then you come butting in. All along of the little yeller birds too!"
"You needn't curse them," Benskin assured him earnestly. "I don't wish you any harm, Chittuck. Believe me, we aren't a lot of brutes at Scotland Yard. If we see a man who's been off the tracks once or twice settling down and trying to make an honest living, we let him alone. Tell me where to find Matthew and it's goodbye and good luck to you, Chittuck."
The latter eyed his visitor suspiciously.
"You mean to tell me straight you don't know?"
"I don't know."
"You've come down to Norwich just to see me?"
"Entirely to see you."
"Gawd!" the young man muttered.
He drew a stool towards him, perched himself upon it, and once more he mopped his damp forehead. Then he sat doubled up, his elbows upon the desk, his grimy hands supporting his grimy face, staring gloomily out into the yard. The canary upon his head endeavoured to liven matters up with a few monotonous chirps.
"This is a nice hit of hell," the distracted man groaned. "If I tell you anything about Matthew, he'll murder me, sure. There's never been an informer yet who didn't get his, and if I don't tell you, I suppose you'll chivvy me out of the city."
"We won't consider that possibility, Chittuck," Benskin suggested soothingly, "because you're going to tell me."
The man edged a little nearer to his visitor. His dirty fingers were drumming now upon the desk, his confident, high-pitched voice had deserted him. He spoke almost, it seemed, with difficulty.
"And when you've found him," he demanded, "what about it? What's the good of it all? You can't take him. You know his history. He's been driven into a corner and surrounded a dozen times. The thing's always had the same ending. He never enters a house, walks in a street, or embarks upon a journey without having considered and guarded against every possibility. His means of escape are always there. He'll walk out upon you and it will cost a few more lives. You leave him alone, Guv'nor."
"Don't be foolish," Benskin replied firmly. "It isn't our job at Scotland Yard to let criminals alone and you know that."
"Then let someone else take it on," Chittuck continued sullenly. "You're a young feller--don't look as though you'd much fight in you, either. Let the old-timers take on Matthew."
"Chittuck," the detective said--and the sternness of his voice was such that the mildness of his appearance was easily forgotten--"there's nothing we folk hate more than to break in upon a man who's trying to lead an honest life. We've got our job to do, though, and that comes first. You've got to tell me where to find Matthew, or to take your chance with us, and you and I both know that that's a slim affair."
Again Chittuck mopped his forehead with a soiled yellow handkerchief. He slid to the ground from his high stool and made a careful examination of the room, even raising the blind and looking out of the window into the back yard. Then he returned and stood by the detective's side.
"Fourteen miles from here, mister," he confided--"you can spot it on the map--is a house called 'Lesser Widerness Hall.' It belongs to Lord Fakenham and it's supposed to have the best shooting that side of Norfolk--seven thousand acres of it. It's been taken by a syndicate. They're there now--and one of the syndicate--"
His voice broke for no apparent reason. He seemed unable to finish the sentence.
"One of the syndicate," Benskin concluded coolly, "is Matthew?"
"Here's my last word to you," Chittuck declared, moistening his dry lips with his tongue: "Don't you think that he's sitting there like one of my little canary birds, waiting to be asked to hop into his cage. You keep away from Lesser Widerness Hall. I've told you."
PETER BENSKIN perhaps lacked one quality, the quality of caution combined with courage, which goes to the making of the greatest detectives. There seemed to him nothing rash, after a study of the map, and a few general enquiries, in driving over towards Lesser Widerness Hall the following afternoon for a preliminary reconnaissance. He had discovered from an estate agent in the city, whom he met at the bar of the hotel, that the shooting and Hall were let to a syndicate, the head of which was a Mr. Martin Vanderler, a wealthy American.
"A stranger to these parts?" Benskin enquired. The man shook his head.
"Not entirely," he confided. "Mr. Vanderler had the Thirsford shooting two years ago with, I believe, the same syndicate. They made a record bag of partridges too, and didn't do so badly with the pheasants. His lordship was very pleased with the way the shoot was run and would have liked to have had Mr. Vanderler take it on again, but for some reason or other he seemed to prefer Lesser Widerness."
"Interesting old place, I should think," Benskin ventured. "Are visitors allowed to see the pictures?"
"In the summer they are. When the house is let for the shooting, they're all locked up."
Benskin departed with a new thrill of admiration for this man whose capture was the dearest wish of his heart. Before stepping into his car, he glanced once more at a little note in his local guidebook, referring to Widerness Hall:
The gem of the collection is, without a doubt, the portrait of Lady Amelia Holcombe, by Gainsborough, which will he found in the South Room. Many critics have proclaimed it the finest existing example of the great artist, and no picture lover should leave the County without an attempt to see it....
FOR ten miles, the way which Benskin had traced out upon the map led along the main road to Aylsham. Afterwards he found himself involved in a series of extraordinary intricate narrow lanes where sometimes the road seemed to disappear altogether. A slight mist was falling when at last a broken-down signpost, pointing to a rough road on the other side of a white gate, indicated die direction to Lesser Widerness Hall. Benskin opened the gate and proceeded cautiously along a track which became suddenly precipitous. Then, without warning, he found it emerged upon a more definite thoroughfare, leading steeply down to a sort of hollow between a rolling slope of common and a belt of thick wood. He drove carefully, negotiated an abrupt corner successfully and jammed on his brakes with a little start of surprise. On his left, stark to the road, situated as it were in the middle of a park-like field, was a huge, Georgian mansion, with row after row of windows and a glimpse on the other side of spreading gardens. It was not the sudden appearance of the house, however, which had taken Benskin so much by surprise as the fact that he had driven almost into the midst of a typical little shooting party on its way home. There were four or five men in conventional homespuns, with pipes in their mouths and guns over their shoulders, a couple of keepers, half a dozen dogs, two game carts, and a straggling line of beaters carrying long sticks, with red flags. Benskin suddenly felt every fibre of his body tense. There could be no danger in the middle of a crowd like this, but, nevertheless, he was conscious of his rashness. A tall, athletic-looking man, in dark green shooting clothes, handed the gun which he had been carrying to a keeper and crossed the road towards the car. With one hand upon the screen, he leaned towards Benskin. His lips were parted in what, save for some other and stranger qualities, might well have been a smile of welcome.
"At last, my dear Benskin!" he exclaimed. "We expected you yesterday."
MAJOR LAWTON, the Chief Constable of Norfolk, was only too anxious to do anything to oblige Lady Muriel, but her whirlwind arrival had a little staggered him, and the strange story she recounted so breathlessly was a severe tax upon his credulity.
"You must remember, Lady Muriel," he pointed out, "that a county like Norfolk, where every one is somebody else's neighbour, and everybody knows everybody else's business, is the last place in the world where a gang of desperate criminals would be likely to come and hide."
"Not this man," she argued--"not Matthew. Mr. Benskin would never have wasted his time coming down here unless he had had some information worth following up. Why should he have disappeared if the gang hadn't got hold of him?"
"His disappearance," the Chief Constable argued, "was probably due to entirely natural causes. His car was discovered, as I have told you, at an early hour this morning, in a lane leading to Wroxham Sands. We have telephoned the police and they are searching every place in the vicinity. What very likely happened was that Mr. Benskin was hurt, staggered off to get help, and collapsed. I expect news of him at any moment."
"Major Lawton," Lady Muriel persisted earnestly, "if the car has been found near Wroxham, then I am very certain that Mr. Benskin is in another part of the county. Believe me that this is a very serious matter. The gang Mr. Benskin is looking for arc the people who committed the Warren's Stores burglary, where, you remember, they killed three men; and if they have got hold of Mr. Benskin, I can assure you that he is in urgent danger. There isn't a moment to be lost. The Sub-Commissioner is coming down himself this afternoon, with two of his special men, but in the meantime we must start a search on our own account."
The Chief Constable frowned.
"We have not yet invited the assistance of Scotland Yard--"
"Oh, please don't be official," Lady Muriel broke in. "This is what I want you to do. There is a man living in Norwich named Chittuck, who rears canaries. Mr. Benskin came here to see him. He knows where these men are hiding. He probably told Mr. Benskin; he must tell us. Please come with me there."
"Chittuck," Major Lawton repeated. "Yes, there is a well-known canary breeder of that name--a manufacturer of some sort too, I believe."
He glanced through a directory, touched a bell, ordered his car, and escorted Lady Muriel downstairs.
"If these criminals really are hiding in this part of the world," he remarked, as they drove through the crowded streets, "I should have thought that a detective of Mr. Benskin's experience would have come first to see me."
"He probably meant to, as soon as he had made a few preliminary enquiries," Lady Muriel replied. "I expect they got hold of him while he was just looking round."
They pulled up outside the archway in the narrow street and knocked at the door of the office, which was opened by Mr. Chittuck himself. The Chief Constable greeted him almost ingratiatingly. There was nothing in the least official about his manner.
"Mr. Chittuck," he said, "this lady and I have come to ask if you would be good enough to answer a question."
Chittuck motioned them to precede him into the office. He was entirely unsuspicious.
"Come in," he invited, "Now, what is it you want to know, please? How to breed prize-winning canaries, I suppose?"
"Nothing of the sort." Lady Muriel assured him. "We are in search of a man who has disappeared--a friend of mine. We think that you might help us."
Chittuck's whole manner changed. He endeavoured to be truculent, but there was a scared look in his eyes.
"Why should I be able to help you?" he demanded harshly.
"Because," Lady Muriel lied blandly, "the last thing my friend told me before he left London was that he was coming to see you to get an address. We know that he came. He probably got it. He went off into the country the night before last and has not been heard of since."
"Well, that's nothing to do with me," Chittuck persisted nervously. "I haven't left these premises for two days. We've too much work to do here to take on other people's troubles."
Major Lawton was beginning to be a little more interested. The man's manner was certainly strange.
"We quite understand that, Mr. Chittuck. You know who I am, perhaps? Lawton, the Chief Constable of the County. This young lady is connected with Scotland Yard. All that we want from you is the address you gave Detective Benskin."
Chittuck leaned for a moment with his elbows upon his high desk and his head buried in his hands.
"I wish to God people would leave me alone," he groaned, looking up at last. "Well, here you are. Benskin asked me where a certain person was and I told him. He is at Lesser Widerness Hall."
"Lesser Widerness Hall!" the Chief Constable exclaimed. "Why my dear Lady Muriel, that's where Martin Vanderler's shooting syndicate are! A delightful fellow! He had Lord Thirsford's shoot last year--came in to see me only the other day about some licences."
"Is that all you want of me?" Chittuck asked inhospitably.
Major Lawton took the hint.
"That's all, Mr. Chittuck," he said, "and we're very much obliged to you. At the same time, as Mr. Benskin's car was found near Wroxham, which is in exactly the opposite direction, I don't imagine your information will be of much use to us. Good morning and good luck to the canaries!"
Lady Muriel forgot to make her adieux. In the archway she staggered a little and clutched at her companion's arm.
"Well, that doesn't help us much, does it?" he remarked cheerfully, as he paused to light a cigarette.
"Major Lawton," she asked, "how long will it take us in your car to get to Lesser Widerness Hall?"
"About three quarters of an hour. It's an out-of-the-way corner of the world. But why on earth do you want to go there? Benskin was evidently on his way to Wroxham, nearly thirty miles in the opposite direction. That's where his car was found."
"It would be. Major Lawton, please have confidence in me and do as I ask. Collect an escort of policemen, get a weapon of some sort for yourself, and come to Lesser Widerness Hall as fast as you can."
The Chief Constable laughed indulgently.
"Well," he conceded, "I'll drive you over there with pleasure, but as to bringing a carload of policemen, believe me, Lady Muriel you misapprehend the situation entirely."
"It is you who do that," she answered quickly. "I don't blame you. No criminal in the world has ever had such an outrageous nerve as Matthew. Bring as small an escort as you please. I'm not afraid, if you're not, but for God's sake start.'"
Her companion compromised. Followed by a single car, containing three plain-clothes policemen, they were soon flying along the Aylsham Road.
"Why did this man Vanderler come to see you?" Lady Muriel enquired.
"He wasn't sure about licences and he wanted to be on the safe side. You see, one of the syndicate is a manufacturer in London and interested in slum work, and he brings his own beaters down for a holiday--twenty of them--and although, of course, Vanderler pays the keepers belonging to the shoot, he makes very little use of them--brings two men of his own who come over from his place in Hungary. From what I've heard, there's no one can teach him anything about the running of a shoot."
Lady Muriel half closed her eyes.
"My God!" she murmured. "His own keepers, his own beaters! What about the indoor servants?"
"Naturally, he has to arrange for them," Major Lawton answered a little stiffly. "I did hear that he'd engaged a butler from Norwich, but the rest came down from London. I really don't think you need take this so seriously, Lady Muriel. I can assure you that there is nothing to be alarmed about."
"You think not," Lady Muriel laughed bitterly. "Yet--as you'll find out in a very short time--the syndicate is composed entirely of criminals and the beaters and servants are members of the gang."
"In that case," the Chief Constable remarked, with a sceptical smile, "we are going to be somewhat in the minority, I am afraid."
Lady Muriel made no reply. She was deliberately charging the small automatic she had drawn from her handbag.
THE main entrance to Lesser Widerness Hall exposed an austere and inhospitable front, with lines of closely drawn blinds. At the back, however, which was the entrance chiefly used, there were some slight signs of movement. One or two of the villagers and two of the gardeners, were talking. The resident gamekeeper had just ridden up on his bicycle. He touched his hat to Major Lawton.
"Are the gentlemen shooting to-day?" the latter enquired.
"Noa, sir, they ain't shooting that I know on," the man replied hesitatingly.
The door was opened. A very personable-looking butler in morning clothes presented himself. Major Lawton repeated his enquiry.
"The party not shooting this morning?"
The butler stood on one side with a portentous gesture and they passed into the stone hall. He closed the door behind them.
"No, sir. To tell you the truth, sir, the party is broken up."
"Broken up?" his questioner repeated.
"Things have happened here which I don't rightly comprehend," the butler continued. "They're mostly, I believe, city gentlemen, who have been staying here, and from what I have heard of their conversation, I take it that something must have happened in the city. There was a good deal of telephoning last night and they all left soon after dinner."
"Where are the rest of the servants?" Lady Muriel asked.
"They're gone too sir, and the beaters," the man confided. "I'm from Norwich myself. I was paid up quite handsomely and told to leave to-night, but a queerer business I never saw in my life, sir. You will pardon me, madam," he added, turning to Lady Muriel, "but might this be Lady Muriel Carter?"
"Yes," she replied hastily.
"There is a letter for your ladyship," he announced, hurrying away for a salver and presenting a square envelope. "Mr Vanderler must have been expecting you, for he left word you were to have it directly you arrived."
Lady Muriel tore it open and read:
Lesser Widerness Hall, Wednesday Evening.
Dear Lady Muriel,
Am I right, I wonder? I am imagining that you will arrive somewhere about twelve o'clock to-morrow morning with a strong escort of Norfolk Constabulary, armed to the teeth. Sorry we can't stay to welcome you, but there have been too many of these little affairs already, and it is hard to get up an interest in a fight with country policemen. They shoot so badly.
I really could not find it in my heart--yes, I have a heart, Lady Muriel--to be unkind to your ingenuous little friend. He wobbled so innocently into trouble that I should have felt like shooting a sitting hare if I had dealt with him seriously. Besides, although I regret having to bring my visit to such an abrupt end, it has been on the whole a great success. The Gainsborough is all and more than I imagined. It will give me infinite pleasure in the future, unless I make up my mind to sell it. That, at present, however, is not my intention. Strangely enough--don't be angry--I find it curiously reminiscent of you as you appeared at the Comtesse de Grignolles' reception.
P.S. How terrible! I nearly forgot what you will doubtless consider the most important part of this letter. If you will go into the South Hall, and press the head of the third oak-carved dryad over the mantelpiece, a door will swing out which leads to the famous Widerness hiding place. Inside you will discover our little friend Benskin, rather cramped, I am afraid, but otherwise well cared for. It was clever of him to find me, but tell him to try to contrive a less one-sided meeting next time, so that we may really come to an explanation.
THEY hurried to the South Hall and the Chief Constable groaned when he saw the empty frame, which had once enclosed the famous picture, hanging upon the wall. The secret chamber was easily discovered and Benskin, unhurt, but pale with suppressed anger, staggered into the light. The Chief Constable helped him out and looked curiously into the stuffy little room. On a rough oaken shelf there still remained a plentiful supply of food, several bottles of wine, and a box of cigarettes, but the walls were three feet thick and the only ventilation came from an opening into the chimney. He stepped back into the room to find Benskin gazing furiously at the empty frame.
"My sincere apologies, Lady Muriel," the Chief Constable said. "All the same, even if the fellow is a desperate criminal, he didn't treat your friend so badly. I see he's still got a bottle of Pol Roger 1911 left."
But, as they knew before night, Matthew's heart was not all kindness, for, at lock-up time, Aaron Chittuck was discovered, shot through the heart, and dead, in his office.
THE taxicab drew up at the narrow opening to the mews in which Lady Muriel's quaint abode was situated. Benskin was stricken with a sudden uneasiness and insisted upon walking with her up the little flight of outside steps which led to her front door.
"I wish you didn't live in such an outlandish spot," he observed doubtfully. "Anything might happen to you here."
She laughed up into his face, apparently unconscious of the fact that he was still holding her fingers.
"Well, nothing ever does happen," she confided. "Sometimes I am not sure that I don't wish it would."
Something very nearly happened at that moment, but a chauffeur opened his door at the bottom of the yard and Peter Benskin lost his nerve.
"Until to-morrow," he sighed, as he reluctantly released her fingers and turned away.
Lady Muriel was possessed of such a natural fund of courage and had lived her bachelor existence for so long that she was incapable of nerves, as the term is generally understood. Nevertheless, as she heard Benskin's taxicab drive away and was fitting her key into the lock of her bright green front door, she was conscious of a feeling which she never remembered to have experienced before. The door responded readily to the turning of the key, swung open and back again. The light leaped into being in her tiny hall and there was no sign there of the slightest disturbance. She picked up some letters from the table, turned the handle of her sitting-room door, and entered. Almost simultaneously the lights flashed on and she felt a hand over her mouth, whilst another grasped her outstretched wrist. The fingers over her mouth, as she remembered for long afterwards, were cool and strong, and seemed as though they had been washed in water containing some aromatic perfume. She could do nothing but stare into the face bent down towards her.
"Pardon me," the intruder said gently. "An ungracious manner of introduction, I fear, but it occurred to me that you might be a little alarmed at finding a stranger here and inclined to call out. It would have been a pity to have brought Mr. Benskin back."
"Who are you? What do you want?" she gasped.
"I have a hundred names," he answered, making a slight, easy movement which placed him between her and the door. "A hundred names and a hundred personalities. What shall I call myself to you, Lady Muriel? Why not Matthew?"
The situation was terrifying enough, but for some inexplicable reason she was less afraid now than astonished. He was taller than she had expected. His complexion was pale; his eyes, of a curious, grey-green colour, had haunted her more than once during the last few evenings. His mouth only was too hard to be pleasant, with that Mephistophelian upward curve which yet had its attraction. His iron-grey hair was brushed back from a prominent forehead. His attire subscribed scrupulously to the mode of the moment.
"You—Matthew?" she exclaimed. "Why, you've been at the Florida the last three nights."
"Quite true," he admitted, with a little bow. "The last two, if you will permit me to say so, chiefly for the pleasure of watching you. I do wish you would persuade Benskin to have some dancing lessons, though."
"I don't consider that he needs them," she answered coldly, "I enjoy dancing with him very much. . . . How did you get in here?"
He laughed, as though the question amused him. "I get in where I choose," he told her. "There is no lock in the world which could defy me if the attraction on the other side of the door were sufficient."
She looked at him uneasily. There were times when the hardness seemed to pass from his eyes and reveal strange depths.
"Well," she said, "I think you had better go. I imagine you are not here to rob me. My poor belongings are at your disposal if you want them, but, although I live in a somewhat Bohemian way, I am not used to visitors at this time of night."
"Your belongings are entirely sacred," he assured her. "At the same time, as, under the peculiar circumstances, my opportunities for improving my acquaintance with you might be reckoned scanty, permit me to stay, shall we say, ten minutes? You will sit down, won't you? I am going, if I may, to take a supreme liberty. I shall venture to mix myself a whisky and soda."
She sat down; there seemed to be very little else to do. At the sideboard, where he lingered for a moment, he was between her and the door.
"You are quite welcome to a drink," she conceded, "but I suppose you know that if by chance any one should come near to whom I could appeal—if I could attract the attention of any one down below, for instance, I should give you into custody."
"That," he remonstrated, "would be scarcely playing the game. This is a visit of courtesy, Lady Muriel. I have stretched no Raffles-like hand towards your treasure. I have come because I wished once more to compare your living profile with the profile of my divine picture and to express again my profound admiration for you."
"You have admired many women, haven't you?" she rejoined, angry with herself that her voice was not quite steady. He sighed.
"Alas, yes," he confessed. "Yet lately no one has taken that place in my affections into which you have stepped so easily. There was the Roman lady, of whom you may have heard," he reflected, after a moment's pause. "I did everything man could do for that woman. I even murdered her husband, with whom she was bored to death, and I stole from her aunt, the Princess, the Corriati pearls. And then—she betrayed me. It was the one time of my life in which I have been really in danger. I remember it now. They tracked me down to the bar of the Grand Hotel in Rome—seven of them. I was there alone, but I escaped."
"You always escape!" she exclaimed involuntarily.
"Yes, I always escape," he admitted. "I possess a medieval charm, Lady Muriel. Once I used to fear arrest; now I have no fears. I take what seem to be great risks to others, but they are not risks to me. You will forgive me if I replenish my glass. Perhaps you will allow me to offer you something. Champagne is a wine which I seldom touch and whisky at the night clubs I dread. Besides, drink in a public place is a thing to be avoided by a poor creature like myself against whom everyone's hand is turned."
She rose to her feet and stood beside him.
"Soda water alone, please," she begged. "I am not like you. I have been drinking champagne."
He filled the glass but, instead of giving it to her at once, he suddenly took her hand and drew her a little towards him in an embrace more suggested than actual, supplicating, almost deferential. He looked down into her eyes and she felt a curious, hateful disturbance of the senses. His voice, which had barked out death to innocent men, was insinuatingly tender.
"You are rather wonderful, Lady Muriel," he murmured. "Why don't you leave your dull world, take that one little step across the chasm, and try mine? No one would ever find us where I should take you."
She tried to extricate herself but was miserably ashamed of the feebleness of her effort.
"You must be mad!" she cried. "Don't you realize that I know who you are, that I know of the terrible things you have done, and for which some day or other you will have to pay?"
His smile faded away but his eyes were as tender as ever.
"My dear," he protested, "what have I done so terrible? I have brushed to one side the men who have stood in my way. They know me. If they have courted death, it is not my fault. I am a criminal—granted—but there are many others who hide their crimes and are married in Hanover Square. I am at least not hypocritical and I am a man. Will you come with me, Muriel, or will you wait until I fetch you?"
"I will never come," she declared passionately. "You are mad to imagine that I possibly could. I belong to the other side and always shall. Let me go!"
This time her struggle was a genuine one, but, although his arms seemed still to remain absolutely gentle, his clasp was of steel. Afterwards she could never tell herself how it happened. She only knew that she saw him leaning over her closer and closer and suddenly felt the pressure of his lips upon her eyelids. Then he stood away, and gravely handed her the tumberful of soda water. She was clinging with one hand to the chimney-piece
"You are terrible!" she gasped. "How dare you! Don't you know that the one thing I dream of, the one thing I have worked for, has been your arrest, to bring you to justice?"
"I am afraid it is true," he admitted, "that you have made some efforts in that direction. Still, they haven't been very successful, have they? If you are so keen about it, there is the telephone. Your friend Mr. Benskin is rather fond of ringing up Scotland Yard and ordering detachments of the police about. Why not do it yourself? I sha'n't interfere."
She glanced at the telephone and knew herself powerless to move.
"Please go," she begged. "I think I am becoming hysterical."
"You are not likely to become anything of the sort," he assured her, and again such was the effect of his voice that she felt the weakness passing from her. "You are going to remember when I am gone that, notwithstanding all the stories you have heard of me, my methods are not altogether crude. This is my first call just with a view to breaking the ice. Next time we meet, it may be when I come to fetch you."
"I shall have my rooms watched every night," she told him fiercely. "If you come here, you will walk into a trap."
He looked at her long and earnestly.
"I wonder," he reflected. "You women do strange things. You waste your time with nincompoops like Benskin and you would lure a man who could really show you the way in life which you have lost to his death—and then you would be sorry—yes, I grant you that," he concluded, knocking the ash from his cigarette.
He took up his silk-lined black evening coat and put it on, leisurely adjusted his scarf, and, hat in hand, moved towards the door without making any further attempt to come near her.
"Lady Muriel," he said, "I shall never forget the pleasure of my first call upon you. You are all that I fancied you to be. You resemble even more than I had dared to hope my divine picture. If you ring up Scotland Yard now," he added, with his hand upon the door, "I shall only have a bare ten minutes' start. They will not find me, but that will not be your fault. Au revoir, Lady Muriel."
"Good night," she said weakly. "Please go!"
"Au revoir," he repeated, stooping to pass through the doorway and turning the handle gently behind him.
SOME instinct, the nature of which Lady Muriel declined to admit even to herself, filled her with more or less conscious relief when, finding Benskin out on her arrival at Scotland Yard the next morning, she was obliged to take her story instead to the Sub-Commissioner. He listened to her carefully and when she had finished there was a gleam of unwilling admiration in his eyes.
"What a man!" he muttered.
She leaned back in her chair helplessly. The Sub-Commissioner was thinking.
"The fellow must have his moments," he reflected. "He could have been a great deal more unpleasant with you, for instance, absolutely alone at that time of night in your rooms."
Lady Muriel's cheeks were flushed but she said nothing.
"Then he certainly did let Benskin off down in Norfolk," Major Houlden went on. "The fellow must be uncommonly sure of himself. To think how we've hunted him all these years and there you were alone with him barely a mile away! I'll have a man in your mews for the rest of the week, anyway. It may not do any good but you'll feel more comfortable. And keep in touch. This new development may help. The only time Matthew was ever nearly caught was through an Italian woman in Rome. History might repeat itself."
Lady Muriel shivered a little. There was scarcely the exultation in her features one might have expected.
"I will keep in touch," she promised, as she took her leave.
In Whitehall she walked into Benskin and told him the whole story. Somehow or other, the second recital seemed to matter less. His face became very stern as he listened.
"There's nothing left for me except that post as traffic inspector, Lady Muriel," he declared bitterly.
"Don't be silly!" she enjoined, patting his arm.
"For two nights following," he continued, "we visit the night clubs simply to watch for that one man. Last night he sat at the very next table. He even made a very subtle attempt to flirt with you—oh, yes, I saw him—and all the time he knew that I was Benskin, the Scotland Yard detective, hunting him. I shall ask the Chief to put another man on the job."
"Don't be absurd," she begged. "Remember what the police of every country have said: his genius for disguise is greater than that of any living actor. Here's a man whom the French Chef de Sûreté has told us is far cleverer than Coquelin ever was. It's almost impossible to recognise a person like that."
"Nevertheless," Benskin groaned, "I walked into his arms at that shooting party. I had every opportunity for studying him and I can assure you that even now, when I know the truth, I cannot see the faintest likeness between your admirer of last night and the man who played the host to me—curse him!—at Lesser Widerness. In Norfolk he was just an ordinary country sportsman, with rather a stronger face than most, loose about the mouth, humorous eyes, hearty without being noisy, looking as though he had lived all his life in homespuns, and walked every day with a gun under his arm instead of in his hip pocket. The man last night was a perfect specimen of the aristocratic boulevardier—the rather cynical, immaculately turned-out man-about-town. It's damnable, Lady Muriel! It isn't one man we're after—-it's fifty."
"Don't lose heart, Peter," she insisted, "and listen! I didn't say a word to Major Houlden, but there was something I noticed which might help. It was a small thing, but you might be able to make something of it. Matthew's clothes were the very best of their kind, but I noticed that inside the collar of his overcoat, where the makers name should have been, there was a blank piece of black satin."
"There might be something in that," Benskin reflected.
"There's this much in it," she went on. "I don't believe there are half a dozen tailors in London who could have made an overcoat such as he was wearing, or a dress coat. If you start at the top and work through the list, you ought to be able to find out some one who orders clothes and won't have the maker's name inside."
"I'll start straight away," Benskin promised.
"Good luck to you," she murmured, with a little pat on his arm.
She left him, and with a farewell wave of the hand, swung herself on to an omnibus going westwards. A man who had been watching her from the interior of a large limousine drawn up by the kerb on the opposite side of the way, indulged in a little grimace. He spoke through the silver-mounted tube.
"Follow that omnibus number thirty-one," he directed.
BENSKIN, on paying his third call in the neighbourhood of Savile Row, met with prompt and unexpected success.
"We have several American clients," the manager explained, "who prefer us not to put the name of an English tailor in their clothes. It helps them with the Customs, I believe, but I don't think that any of them would be of interest to you. We have another client with the same peculiarity who has always been rather a mystery to us and with whom I hope very much you are not going to interfere."
"Because he happens to be now, as he has been for the last ten years, the very best customer we have upon our books."
"You will tell me his name?" Benskin begged.
"I would do so with pleasure, sir," was the polite reply, "but we do not know it."
"Not know it!" Benskin repeated, staring across the table from his comfortable chair, at the manager.
"That may sound extraordinary, sir," the latter continued, "but it's a fact. We have been making clothes of every sort and description for this gentleman, from sporting garments of various kinds to a Court suit, but we have never heard his name. You will wish me, no doubt, to explain the procedure."
"If you please."
"At irregular periods, but, generally speaking, every few months, we receive a telephone message from a firm of fruit brokers—Gonzales and Ardron, of Plumer's Buildings, Riverside Street—a district, I believe, somewhere in the vicinity of the lower wharves. We send one of our best men down there with a variety of patterns and, either in the warehouse, or on one of the steamers moored close to the wharf, our client makes his selection. He usually chooses twenty to twenty-five suits at a time, and gives us a date for trying on, and a rendezvous. Sometimes it is at Cowes, once or twice it has been at Greenwich, occasionally at the warehouse in the City, or the Ritz Hotel here, but our representative has always been met and has never had any occasion to ask for his client by name."
"Can you describe him?"
"I have often asked our man the same question," the manager acknowledged, "and he always seems a little vague about it. From a tailoring point of view, the thing that interests us chiefly is that he has an absolutely perfect figure. His clothes can be made upon a block. There is very seldom an alteration required, and although I have never seen him in my life, I should expect, if I did meet him, to see the best-dressed man in London. Apart from that, I gather that he is clean-shaven, middle-aged, and, although the name of the firm with which he seems to be associated is foreign, he is undoubtedly an Englishman. Now you would probably like to ask the fitter who waits upon him a few questions," the manager concluded, stretching out his hand towards the bell, Benskin stopped him promptly.
"There is nothing more I want to know, thank you," he said, "and I would much rather that you did not mention my visit to the fitter."
The manager seemed a little doubtful.
"He's been with us for thirty years—an absolutely trustworthy fellow."
"If he were a partner in the firm, I should still say the same," Benskin insisted. "The man we are after is capable of giving a ten thousand pound bribe in the same way that we might slip a pound note into a man's hand. I should prefer your not mentioning these enquiries to any one. What I should like to know is if you have any work on hand for your customer at the present moment."
The manager glanced at a memorandum upon his desk.
"As it happens," he confided, "our fitter—Harding, his name is—is taking eleven suits to be tried on down to Riverside Street to-morrow."
There was an ominous glitter in Benskin's eyes.
"At what time?"
"He is to be at Riverside Street at half-past eleven. Our client is the most extraordinarily punctual person. To be five minutes late would be an offence, so I imagine Harding will leave here at about eleven in a taxicab, in case there should be a block in traffic anywhere."
Benskin rose to his feet.
"I am immensely obliged to you, sir," he said. "Your information may be of great value to us."
"I only hope it won't mean that we are going to be robbed of our best client," was the good-humoured rejoinder.
BENSKIN returned to Scotland Yard and recounted to the Sub-Commissioner the result of his mission.
"It sounds promising enough," the latter admitted.
"It does," Benskin agreed, without overmuch enthusiasm.
Benskin drummed lightly with his fingers upon the table. His ingenuous face was clouded; the sparkle had gone from his blue eyes,
"A slight attack of nerves, sir, I expect," he confessed. "We have so often nearly laid our hands upon this fellow. This looks promising enough and yet—"
"You think it's a trap?"
"I think that if this is really another of his hiding places, he'll have a wonderful get-away all provided for."
The Sub-Commissioner smiled.
"I dare say the get-away's there all right," he observed, "but he isn't going to have all the luck all the time. You'd better lie low for the rest of the day, Benskin. I'll send some of our men, who know the neighbourhood, down to Riverside Street and get a plan of the place. Oh, by the by, here's another mysterious letter for you, It came by hand a few minutes ago."
He threw it across the desk—a narrow, violet-tinted envelope, with a typewritten address. Benskin opened it languidly enough, but at the sight of the first few words he was a different man. Forgetful of his superior's presence, he swore blasphemously as he flung the letter upon the table. The Sub-Commissioner picked it up and read:
My dear Benskin,
You really should not allow a young lady of Lady Muriel's charm and position to travel in an omnibus. Anything might happen, you know, in this intriguing city of ours.
"The nerve of the fellow!" Houlden gasped.
Benskin snatched up his hat.
"I've got to make sure that she's all right," he announced. "She was going back to her rooms to change early for luncheon and the reception this afternoon."
The Sub-Commissioner nodded. He tapped the sheet of paper indulgently.
"Sardonic humour this chap seems to have," he observed, "but the rest of it's bluff, of course. Come in and get the news about five."
AT the appointed hour that evening, the Sub-Commissioner sat impatiently awaiting the return of Peter Benskin. He was so completely engrossed with the matter in hand that he did not notice the latter's disturbed demeanour when, punctually as the hour struck, he presented himself.
"Come and sit down, Benskin," he invited. "Here, by the side of me. Brooks has just got back—done his work quite well. There's no doubt that Gonzales and Ardron are a firm of repute. They own two or three steamers, do genuine business, their bank report is A1, and there is nothing against either of the partners. Here's a sketch of the vicinity. You turn off Tooley Street into Riverside Street. Pretty rotten neighbourhood that, of course, and at the end of Riverside Street there are some iron gates, leading out on to a wharf extension where one of the Gonzales steamers is generally docked. These gates are open during the daytime, but can be closed with authority at any moment. Now, on the left, just before you reach these gates, there are some others, leading to ten or twelve warehouses, which face, you see, towards this open space, and the backs of which are within a few yards of the river, from which they are separated by a strip of wharf. The first of these warehouses, and the only one of any consequence, is that of Gonzales and Ardron. They have two cranes, electrically worked, and, as a matter of fact, this afternoon they were busy loading one of their steamers which is moored close to the wharf, ready for a return journey to Barcelona. Speaking generally of the whole neighbourhood and the immediate environment of the wharf, Brooks goes so far as to describe it as a criminal's paradise. There are two empty buildings adjoining the premises of Gonzales and Ardron, with half a dozen exits in each. Beyond this are some filthy tumble-down cottages, which are all owned by the firm of Gonzales. There are back entrances to Merton Street and front entrances leading along an alley into Riverside Street. A very pretty little nest, it might be. There are one or two features of encouragement for us, though."
Benskin nodded, without speaking. He was studying the plan.
"Every morning," the Sub-Commissioner went on, "there is a small crowd of loafers on the quay, in the hope of finding a job, and twenty or thirty more who lounge about in the open space at the back of Gonzales' warehouse. To-morrow that number will be slightly increased. We shall have another half-dozen out on the strip of dock and a few hanging around the ship. Then, safely out of sight, I shall have a strongish force of men occupying at least three of the cottages, and the streets beyond that will be thoroughly patrolled."
"And the plan?"
"The fitter from the tailor will arrive by taxicab with all his parcels, at about eleven-thirty, and until he has turned up there won't be the slightest sign of anything unusual. He will enter the warehouse and as soon as he is safely inside we will pass the signal to the men who are waiting at the different places, and three or four of us will rush the warehouse. Any suggestions?"
"What about the Gonzales staff?" Benskin enquired. "We shall have to take it for granted that they're in the game. How many will there be?"
"Only fourteen. We shall be nearer forty, and directly the shooting begins—if there is any—my outside men will close in. You'll want to go along, I suppose?"
"I don't think there's a living man could keep me away, sir," Benskin replied fiercely.
The Sub-Commissioner glanced up and suddenly realised Benskin's condition.
"What about Lady Muriel?" he asked.
"I've spent the whole afternoon looking for her. She did not return to her rooms, although, when she left, I know that she meant to go straight there. She did not appear at the reception, although they were expecting her, and she had a definite assignment there."
"My God!" Houlden muttered. "You don't think—"
"I'm not allowing myself to think," Benskin interrupted. "They have called the conductor of the bus which she boarded, off duty. I am seeing him at the General Omnibus Company's offices in half an hour."
Major Houlden leaned back in his chair. "It's a queer business, but after all, Benskin," he pointed out, "an abduction at eleven o'clock in the morning from a bus going from Northumberland Avenue to Bond Street isn't possible, is it?"
The telephone bell at his elbow tinkled. He took off the receiver and, after a word or two, passed it to his companion.
"Trunk call for you, Benskin—put through from your room. Sounds like a lady's voice."
Benskin held the receiver to his ear. A torrent of tremulous words assailed him.
"This is Muriel speaking. I can't explain. I've only a few seconds. Widerness—Lesser Widerness Hall. Do you hear? Come now. Oh, quickly—quickly! It's Matthew, and I'm terrified!"
"Where are you?" Benskin asked.
"On the way there. We've had a slight accident. I'm in a chemist's shop. I pretended to faint. Philip, don't delay, please. You'll need some men. The beaters have gone back there. Please—please!"
The voice died away. Houlden, who had been listening in, set down his part of the instrument.
"My God, Benskin! What are we to do now? he exclaimed.
"Stay where we are and look for Matthew in London," was the grim reply. "It was a very good imitation of Lady Muriel's voice, but I'd never believe that Matthew or any one connected with him would let her go into a chemist's shop and stay there long enough to telephone, if they'd once got hold of her. Besides, she happens to know that my name is Peter. I wasn't sure before, but I am now," he added, his voice gaining strength, and the light flashing once more in his eyes. "Matthew will be at Riverside Street to-morrow. If I can't take him, I'll kill him."
AT twenty minutes to twelve precisely, on the following morning, a motor, driven at a considerable speed, turned in at the yard and stopped outside the unimposing entrance to the premises of Messrs. Gonzales and Ardron. Four men, alighting quickly, pushed open the swing door and entered the warehouse. The Sub-Commissioner and Benskin, who were in the van, glanced rapidly around. At a table, set in a corner, with half a dozen oranges before him, was a large, unprepossessing looking man of foreign appearance, dressed in what seemed to be a smock, or blue linen duster, a pair of trousers which failed to meet in the front and left an untidy gap, and yellow boots which apparently had not been cleaned for several days. He had a short tuft of thick beard under his chin and the rest of his face badly needed a shave. He held an orange in one hand and he was talking at a great pace to a small, Jewish-looking person with black, unruly hair, a hooked nose, and a bowler hat worn rakishly on one side. The latter was smoking an unpleasant cigar and listening with a smirk to the other's outpourings.
"I tell you, Isaacs," the large man declared, with only a casual glance at the newcomers, "you make more money out of my fruits than any other you buy. I been to Covent Garden. I see your stall. I see your shop in Regent Street. I know what price you make for my goods. You rob me the money you pay for them. No, sir, nothing doing. You pay my price for this cargo or I come up to the market myself. I take a stall. I take a dozen stalls. I sell all my fruits there. Ninety shillings, and no less."
"Meaning eighty," the little man grinned.
A warehouseman in a leather apron approached the Sub-Commissioner and Benskin, who were lingering upon the threshold, taking stock of their surroundings. He jerked his head towards the table.
"The Guv'nor's engaged with a buyer for a few minutes," he said. "Can I do anything for you?"
Major Houlden looked across at the door, upon which was printed "Office."
"Who is in there?" he enquired.
"The other Guv'nor," the man replied, "but he's engaged just now."
"I'll have a word with him," the Sub-Commissioner decided.
They crossed the room. At the sight of the little procession, Mr. Gonzales broke off in a flow of eloquence and stared at them with his mouth wide open.
"Hi! What are you wanting?" he called out.
No one took any notice. It was Benskin who threw open the door and his hand came out of his pocket with a flash. A tall, athletic-looking man was standing in the middle of an untidy office, partly dressed, and with one arm outstretched. There were clothes hanging upon every possible article of furniture, and an undoubted tailor's assistant was standing back, studying critically the hang of the trousers he was fitting. Both seemed equally startled when they turned around at the opening of the door to look down the ugly barrels of a couple of automatics.
"Put them up! Quick!" Benskin ordered.
The man who was trying on the clothes understood at once and obeyed. The tailor's assistant, as soon as he grasped what was expected of him followed suit eagerly.
"What's the meaning of this?" the former demanded, swinging round. "You needn't worry about that gun. This is an unfinished pair of trousers, with no pockets."
Benskin stepped into the light and looked the speaker in the face. He was clean-shaven, with well-cut but unpleasing features, and a faintly derisive smile. His eyes met Benskin's without flinching.
"I don't understand this business," he said. "What's it all about?"
Benskin studied him closely from the crown of his head to his feet. Then he turned to the tailor's assistant.
"You can put your hands down," he said. "Are you from Platt's, Savile Row?"
"I am, sir," the man replied nervously, "and I'd like to say that I'm not used to firearms and I hate the sight of them."
"No one's going to do you any harm," Benskin assured him. "Answer this question quickly: Is this the gentleman you're used to making clothes for?"
"I never saw him before in my life," the man declared. "The things weren't made for him either, and how we'll get them to fit, I don't know. I arrived here to try on my usual customer and I was told—"
Benskin sprang to the window. From outside came the sound of a siren. The steamer was moving off—already clear of the small pier-head. A man leaning over the side removed a cigar from his mouth and waved his hand. It was Gonzales, a shabby cloth cap on the back of his head, a grin on his broad face. Nevertheless, inspiration came to Benskin, not for the first time in his life—a thought too late. He strode to the door.
"Burton," he called out, "telephone every river police station from here to Greenwich to stop and board steamship Juanita, outward bound. He's done us, sir," he groaned, turning to Houlden.
"Matthew—Gonzales! Blast him!" Benskin cried. "What a make-up and what an infernal nerve!"
Burton rushed out as they hastily clambered into their car.
"No telephones here working, sir," he announced. "All wires cut."
"Get to the nearest call station," the Sub-Commissioner ordered. "Have the inspector lock up the place, and put everyone under surveillance."
Half an hour later, in obedience to a sharp police whistle from a heavily laden barge, the Juanita slowed down just short of the Tower Bridge, a rope ladder was thrown over the side, and four or five policemen, followed by Benskin and the Sub-Commissioner, climbed on board. They came warily, but there was no one who seemed inclined to dispute their progress. A man whom they presumed was the captain jabbered to them in Spanish. The pilot leaned over from the bridge.
"What's wrong, gentlemen?" he called out.
"We're from Scotland Yard." the Sub-Commissioner announced. "We want someone on board."
"What am I to do with the boat?" the pilot demanded.
"Take her back to the wharf where you came from. Can you swing her clear of the bridge?"
The pilot nodded and resumed his place at the wheel. The captain, with a shrug of the shoulders, climbed the steps and joined him. A steward hurried up to the newcomers.
"Where's Mr. Gonzales?" Houlden enquired.
"No English," the man replied.
They pushed him on one side and descended the companion-way, leaving the rest of the men to guard the deck. The first three cabins they found empty. From the fourth Benskin heard a familiar voice and shouted encouragement. The door was locked but they forced it in a few seconds. Lady Muriel was standing there, waiting for them. She held out her hands with a little sob of relief.
"You're all right?" Benskin demanded.
"I'm all right," she answered. "But—Matthew! He is the devil incarnate! I was beginning to feel like that bird in the gilded cage."
She pointed to the canary which was singing lustily in a wonderful little Chinese temple, hanging from the ceiling. They looked further round the room, and understood. The place was a bower of roses. On the sideboard were bowls of peaches and muscatel grapes; a great box of chocolates and half a dozen new novels lay upon the sofa. She pointed almost hysterically to a steamer trunk and a dressing case, both of them marked with her initials.
"My things!" she cried. "I haven't been near home and I have the key in my pocket."
There was the sound of water being churned up as the steamer swung round. Benskin, listening intently, drew his automatic once more from his pocket. The Sub-Commissioner stepped back into the corridor.
"You haven't been home since when?" Benskin asked breathlessly.
"And since then?"
"You saw me get into the omnibus," she recounted. "Well, it put me down in Bond Street, and just as I stepped on to the pavement an elderly gentleman, looking exactly like a doctor, left his car, spoke to me as though we were old friends, and told me that my cousin, Millie Trotman, who was coming up to see me yesterday and going to the reception with me, had met with a slight accident and was lying in a hospital—could he take me there? Of course I was fool enough to believe him, but after all, why not? I didn't imagine that any one else in the world knew that Millie was coming, and the doctor would have deceived even you. I got into the car, felt a prick on the back of my hand—and woke up here."
"What about Matthew?" Benskin demanded.
"I only saw him for a moment this morning," she replied. "He came in to make his apologies, he said. We should have plenty of time for explanations when we got out to sea!"
Benskin drew a sigh of relief and turned away.
"You won't mind if I hurry off?" he begged. "I must be in it when they take him."
She called him back.
"Matthew—Gonzales, if you like. We tumbled to his disguise just too late." She shook her head a little pitifully.
"My dear Peter," she expostulated, "you don't really suppose, when he realised that you were coming after him, that he was going to stay on board, do you? We weren't fifty yards away from the wharf when off he went in a small dinghy. They picked him up on another steamer. I couldn't see her name, but I believe he left her too, from the other side, in a motor launch. He could have landed anywhere between here and Greenwich by this time."
The tide had begun to turn. All manner of steamers and craft of different sorts were lumbering down the river. Benskin watched them through the porthole, and there was fury in his heart. So far as one could see, the procession of boats went on.
"And he is there!" he muttered in despair. "He is either in some safe hiding place on shore, or he is on one of them, smiling at us. He's right. We're a pack of idiots. We work like machines till the last moment and then he just slips through our fingers as he pleases. Gonzales! Why, I can hear him now, quarrelling over the price of those oranges. Damn him!"
There was a knock at the door. A young man, wearing the linen jacket of a steward, entered, the Sub-Commissioner at his heels.
"Note for gentleman," the former announced.
Benskin tore open the envelope with a curse still upon his lips.
My dear Benskin,
I have forgiven you a great deal, but this time I am angry. You have spoilt what I know so well would have been the most wonderful episode of my life; you have robbed me of my divine picture, of all my new clothes, and you have prevented my ever going again to the best tailor in the world. Why on earth didn't you play the knight errant and go down to Lesser Widerness Hall?
Keep your gun handy from now on, little man. There's trouble coming.
The Sub-Commissioner read the letter; Lady Muriel read it, with a little shiver; Benskin tore it savagely into pieces. Then Lady Muriel laid a consoling hand upon the shoulders of the two men. She looked towards the door of the cabin, to be sure it was closed, opened a cupboard, drew out a long roll of canvas, and let it fall slowly open, fold by fold.
"The Gainsborough!" Benskin exclaimed.
She nodded gravely.
"He was right about the likeness too, I suppose," she observed. "It is the portrait of my great-great-aunt, Lady Amelia Holcombe."
The two men studied the picture for a moment in silence. The girl's face under the large hat seemed curiously alive. The lips, with their faint mockery, the eyes, with their wistful depths, were both reminiscent of the girl who was holding the canvas.
"Matthew's first present to me," she announced, and again the curve of those pictured lips was reproduced in her own. "He stopped here for one moment when he knew that he had lost and that you were close on his heels. He looked at the picture. I suppose I was a fool but I only wanted to get rid of him—I held it out. He shook his head. 'I never take back presents,' he said. 'Soon we shall be admiring it together.' Then he hurried off and a minute later I heard the boat leave the ship."
"A wonderful gesture!" the Sub-Commissioner murmured.
"At our expense, as usual," Benskin exclaimed bitterly.
Lady Muriel laid her hand upon his arm.
"Please don't be disheartened," she begged. "Remember that what you have done is a great triumph. You have driven him from his most important hiding place. You have made him a fugitive once more, you have rescued me, the victim of an abduction, and you have regained the picture. Surely that isn't a bad morning's work?"
"Lady Muriel is right," the Sub-Commissioner agreed. "The picture is a great find." Benskin smiled at her gratefully.
"All the same," he pointed out, "the triumph is yours, not ours. It was you who gave us the clue which enabled us to track him down through his tailors and it is you who have the picture. We are the mugs who let him go. The whole of the credit really belongs to you."
"Cheer up," Lady Muriel enjoined hopefully. "So far you've had the bad luck and I've had the good. Believe me, the end isn't so far off."
The Sub-Commissioner looked at her with a question in his eyes.
"You have something to tell us?" She nodded mysteriously.
"I know something about Matthew," she confided. "Don't ask me what it is at this moment. Tell me the date."
"The twenty-ninth of October," Benskin replied.
She leaned towards the two men and her voice carried conviction.
"Upon the second of November," she prophesied, "you shall take Matthew."
THEIR heads were very close together over the worn leather top of the Sub-Commissioner's desk. Benskin was acutely conscious of the perfume of the great bunch of dark violets Lady Muriel was wearing.
"Here is my bonne-bouche," she announced, laying a sheet of paper upon the table between the two men. "Presently I will explain how it came into my possession."
The letter, which they pored over together, was written on a sheet of business notepaper, stamped at the top:
Gonzales & Ardron,
Fruit Importers & Brokers
Riverside Street Wharves, E.C.3.
The Management, Milan Hotel, W.C.2.
Our Barcelona agents have asked that a small suite may be reserved in the Court on the afternoon of the second of November for their representative, Mr. Paul Gilmott, and another room as near as possible for his secretary, Senor Sacrosta. These gentlemen will arrive at Victoria by the afternoon train from the Continent. Kindly confirm the reservation.
Gonzales & Ardron.
The two men looked up enquiringly.
"That letter," Lady Muriel explained, "was dictated by Matthew early in the morning on the day of the raid. The first thing of which I was conscious when I woke up was the clicking of the typewriter. He was giving letters to a secretary in the next cabin. Then came an alarm. I suppose, as usual, some of his spies brought in news of your doings. He hurried away and the secretary followed him. My door wasn't locked then. I looked out and picked up this sheet of paper in the companionway."
"The second of November!" the Sub-Commissioner exclaimed.
"The second of November!" Benskin echoed excitedly.
"Well, what about it?" Lady Muriel enquired. "Does the date mean anything to you?"
"It does, indeed," Major Houlden acknowledged. "The second of November is the date upon which we have been asked to safeguard the transference of a considerable number of priceless precious stones from Buckingham Palace to the Tower of London."
"Not the Crown Jewels?" Lady Muriel cried.
The Sub-Commissioner shook his head.
"There is a great deal of wonderful jewellery belonging to the Royal Family," he confided, "acquired by them at various times, which is not included in what is historically known as the Crown Jewels. As you are aware, their Majesties are leaving England for three months on November third, and they have expressed a desire that this jewellery should be sent to the Tower for safe-keeping during their absence."
There was a brief but very tense silence. Benskin was drumming upon the table with nervous fingers.
"Even for Matthew," the Sub-Commissioner muttered, "this would be a mad enterprise."
"But the man is mad," Benskin declared harshly. "Everything points to it. Hasn't he announced openly that he is going to bring off one great coup and disappear?"
"He'll disappear all right," Houlden prophesied. "We have proved that he is not so infallible as he thinks. If this is his scheme, he'll disappear between the trapdoors with a rope around his neck."
Lady Muriel shivered.
"But why," she ventured, "should he choose a well-known hotel like the Milan to work from? He has always had such wonderful hiding places."
"Has had," the Sub-Commissioner observed drily. "You must remember that we've wiped out two or three of them. To come boldly to an hotel like the Milan, with his wonderful gift of disguise, is really a stroke of genius. It is just what I should have expected from the man. If he tries to bring off this coup, I shouldn't be surprised to see him attempt it from one of the Royal carriages. The second of November."
He glanced at the calendar upon the wall.
"Four days," he continued thoughtfully.
The telephone bell rang. Houlden spoke for a few minutes and rang off. Then he glanced at the clock.
"That's rather opportune," he remarked. "Lady Muriel, you'll have to excuse us. The Comptroller of the Household at Buckingham Palace wants to see us about making arrangements for the transference of the jewels. Benskin, you'd better come with me."
Lady Muriel rose regretfully to her feet.
"Mine is a hard life," she complained. "I submit to an abduction and go through no end of drudgery for the benefit of the law, and when a really interesting assignment comes along, I'm not even invited. I should love to see those jewels."
Major Houlden smiled as he took down his overcoat from its peg.
"Lady Muriel," he said, "we can't take you to Buckingham Palace with us, but if things go our way this time"—he pointed to the letter still lying upon the table—"you'll be able to buy your country cottage and a couple of hunters."
"Blood money!" she shuddered.
"The best money in the world if it's Matthew blood," the Sub-Commissioner rejoined fervently,
AT precisely a quarter-past three on the afternoon of the second of November, two tall young footmen in the undress Royal livery, superintended by a grey-headed butler, staggered out of one of the seldom-used side entrances of Buckingham Palace and hoisted a small chest, which they had been carrying, into a police van drawn up with its open door a few feet only from the threshold. Three policemen superintended the operation and three more, who were already in the van, helped to draw the chest to the farther end of the vehicle. The constable who had been guarding the door mounted the step, called out to the driver, and the van moved off. As it left the gates of the Palace and turned in to the Mall, two other cars, each containing four plain-clothes policemen, drew up, one in front of it and one behind. A limousine, which had been waiting inside the railings, and in which were seated the Sub-Commissioner and Benskin, with a plain-clothes policeman on the box, joined in the procession. They passed along the Mall, down Northumberland Avenue, and on to the Embankment, the escorting cars drawing so near to the police van that there were only a few feet of space between them all. Many curious glances were thrown at the little cortège, but its progress was absolutely uneventful. In precisely thirty-five minutes, the strongly guarded gates of the Tower were opened to admit it and the van pulled up exactly opposite the main entrance to the building. The policemen emerged, the doors were opened, and, surrounded by a strong escort, the chest was carried inside, along a corridor, and down some steps into the famous strong-room. Here, the Governor himself, with the keys in his hand, was waiting. The Sub-Commissioner saluted.
"Box from Buckingham Palace, Sir Gregory," he announced.
They all stood around, whilst the Governor unlocked a particular section of the amazing series of steel chambers. A door glided noiselessly back, an electric light flamed out, and the chest was pushed home into its resting place. Major Houlden turned to Benskin with a little sigh of relief, mingled perhaps with a shade of regret.
"False alarm, after all, Benskin," he observed.
"It seems so," the latter assented doubtfully.
There was a sharp tinkle from the bell of the house telephone just inside the door. One of the attendants answered it and hurried over to the Governor.
"Will you speak at once, sir?" he begged. "It is a message from Buckingham Palace. You are switched through down here."
Sir Gregory took the receiver. There was a sudden change in his face as he listened.
"Good God!" he exclaimed. "Yes—yes. I'll telephone the result."
He turned back towards the little group. There were two of the Tower guards in the background, four of the plain-clothes men, the Sub-Commissioner, and Benskin. The huge door of the strong room was still open and the recently arrived chest stood in one of the private compartments over which was emblazoned the Royal Arms. The Governor unfastened his coat and from a chain which was interwoven with a belt he drew a thin key.
"Are you going to open the box, sir?" the Sub-Commissioner asked, with a sudden thrill of alarm.
"Instructions from Buckingham Palace," was the breathless reply. "This is a passkey to all the Royal coffers."
He thrust it into the box, turned it twice, juggled with it for a moment, and touched what seemed to be a spring. The lid of the chest flew open. Inside, on the top of the metal tray, were neatly arranged strips of sheet iron. The rest of the box was filled in the same manner. He rose to his feet and pointed downwards with a shaking finger.
"Half a million pounds' worth of jewels stolen under your very nose, Mr. Sub-Commissioner," he cried. "Thank God I have a dozen witnesses that no one approached the chest after it had entered these precincts."
Neither Major Houlden nor Benskin wasted a single minute in incredulous and useless exclamations. They hurried out to their car and a few seconds later were flying along the Embankment.
At Buckingham Palace the guards at every gate were doubled and it was not until the Sub-Commissioner had disclosed their identity that they were allowed to pass. They made at once for the entrance from which the van had started. A detective-sergeant from Scotland Yard was waiting for them and motioned them to follow him up the stairs. At the first turn, a rope had been hastily tied from the banisters to a hook in the wall. From here there were seven steps, and again an abrupt turn upwards. In various positions and angles upon the seven steps were stretched the crumpled-up bodies of three dead men, two of them wearing the Royal undress livery of the Household, and the third a butler's ordinary afternoon clothes.
"Not a thing has been touched, sir," the sergeant announced. "Ten minutes after you left, when I was thinking of removing my men, the alarm came from one of the servants."
"Ten minutes!" Benskin exclaimed, the words flashing from his lips.
"These stairs are very seldom used, sir," the man explained. "Even the two or three rooms on the floor above have an exit on to a different staircase."
The doctor, who had been bending over one of the bodies, stepped underneath the rope and drew himself upright.
"The most horrible affair I ever came across in my life," he confessed. "All three men must have been stabbed almost simultaneously from behind, and in each case the knife reached the heart. Three different knives, all of the same pattern. It's incredible! The whole thing's more like the Middle Ages."
He mopped his forehead.
"They are servants of the Household, I suppose?" Houlden asked the sergeant.
"Two footmen and the butler to the Stewards' Room—been in the Royal service for over thirty years."
The Sub-Commissioner turned to the physician.
"Doctor," he said, "the bodies can be moved to the mortuary, but nothing else must be touched."
Benskin made his rapid appearance from one of the servants' sitting rooms. He drew the Sub-Commissioner on one side.
"A Pink Heather Laundry van," he reported quickly, "was waiting against the side of the house there. I noticed it—in fact, I had a look inside before we started. The driver wore a hat with 'Pink Heather Laundry' across it. I've talked to one of the housekeepers who seems to have been the only person about. These are sort of back stairs, you see—very seldom used. She says that three of the ordinary laundrymen, except that they were wearing long mackintoshes, carried out a basket of laundry, which had been prepared for them, a few seconds after our departure,"
"Where is she?" the Sub-Commissioner asked.
"In this sitting room, sir," Benskin pointed out, leading the way. "She is in a terrible state of shock."
Houlden was in no mood to respect the condition of any one. He pushed his way into the room.
"Madam," he demanded, "you had laundry prepared for the Pink Heather Company to-day?"
"Yes," she acknowledged, "the men called for it just after the police van left."
"The usual men?"
"They seemed so to me, sir. They were wearing the Pink Heather caps. The only odd thing was that, although it wasn't raining, they wore long mackintoshes."
"They took the laundry away?"
"Yes, sir. I saw the van drive off."
"Then what's that?" Benskin asked, pointing to a corner of the room.
She looked across and stared. Then she rose to her feet, readjusting her spectacles.
"Why, I believe—" she faltered.
Benskin flicked aside the rug which covered the hamper and wrenched open the lid.
"The laundry is here," he announced.
The old lady was bewildered.
"I saw the basket carried—"
"Madam," the Sub-Commissioner intervened, "will you be so good as to make no statement, or answer any question. Not a word, mind, about that basket or anything else."
"Not a word," the old lady promised, her voice half choked with sobs.
Houlden had already detached the receiver of the telephone instrument which stood against the wall.
"Exchange," he called. "Listen! This is Scotland Yard speaking from Buckingham Palace. Give me the number of the Pink Heather Laundry Company—urgent! You can disconnect anything necessary. This is official."
In less than twenty seconds a voice was announcing itself as the Pink Heather Laundry Company.
"Scotland Yard speaking," the Sub-Commissioner repeated. "Have you sent to Buckingham Palace to-day for servants' laundry?"
"The car is leaving in five minutes," was the prompt reply. "We received a telephone message to say the things would not be ready before four."
"How many vans have you?"
"Two, but one is at the repairers, out of order."
"And you are certain that the other car has not left?"
"Certain. It is standing in the yard now."
The Sub-Commissioner rang off.
"Matthew at his best," he groaned, turning towards Benskin. "Come along."
A QUARTER of an hour later, the two men were closeted in the Sub-Commissioner's office at Scotland Yard. Houlden was walking restlessly up and down the room. Benskin was hungrily watching the telephone. The whole of the detective system of London was at work from one end of the city to the other.
"Let's hear your reconstruction, Benskin," the Sub-Commissioner demanded, suddenly relapsing into his chair and lighting a cigarette. "I think you're on the right track."
"It's fairly simple, I'm afraid," Benskin acknowledged dolefully. "A perfect revelation of Matthew's methods—thorough from beginning to end, every joint in place. These footmen are pretty well all alike, so there wasn't any trouble about that. The elderly man is a well-known figure and I rather fancy Matthew himself played the butler. They hired or bought a van and had 'Pink Heather Laundry' painted upon it, had suits of clothes made for two footmen and the butler, procured a laundry basket, and drove boldly up to a back entrance. Any servant who might see them round the bottom flight of stairs would naturally suppose that they were bringing in laundry, as they were wearing the Pink Heather caps, and their liveries were entirely covered by long mackintoshes. They left the basket empty, just out of sight of the first turn, waited in the lavatory at the bend for the coming of the three men, dealt with them, threw off their mackintoshes, brought out their bogus box from the laundry basket, handed it gravely over to the police, slipped back again, on with their mackintoshes, and out with the laundry basket containing the chest which they had taken from the three dead men. It must have been an exciting few minutes, because at any time some one might have come down those back stairs and found the three dead bodies. However, they had Matthew's usual luck. Everything went well for them. They hoisted the basket into the Pink Heather van and drove off. Inside the van they probably had a kit bag waiting for the chest. They exchanged their clothes in the van, stuffed the bogus ones into the basket, tied it up again, and got rid of it some way or another. They would have to get rid of the basket because they were probably able to disguise the van by pulling slats down, but if it was searched, the basket would give them away at once. We've two hundred and fifty men in the streets looking for that van and that basket, and every police telephone in London enquiring about it. It's a wonderful coup, but they'll still have to be amazingly clever and amazingly lucky to get away with it."
The telephone bell rang. Benskin took off the receiver.
"Inspector Hannaford reporting from Victoria Station. A laundry basket has been left at the suburban cloakroom. Opened it according to instructions. Two suits of footman's uniform, a dress coat, black waistcoat and pair of grey trousers were discovered inside."
"Good. Any sign of the van?" Benskin demanded.
"Not so far as we're concerned, sir," was the reply. "We have reason to believe, however, that the three men left the van in Victoria Station."
"Nothing reliable, sir. A porter brought in the laundry basket, but there's an impression in his mind that there were three men who slipped out of the car, although only one received the ticket for the basket. The one who received the ticket seems to have gone away alone. The other two, he believes, entered the station, but he couldn't identify them. Hold the line, please, sir."
There was a moment's silence. Then the inspector spoke again.
"The van's been found, sir," he announced. "It's standing in Victoria Station, empty. The Pink Heather sign was covered up—a thin slat worked over it with a spring. The porter identifies it, however, as the one the laundry basket came in."
"Good work," Benskin said encouragingly. "Now enquire as to the running of the boat train. See that the exchange holds the line."
There was a few moments' silence. Then the inspector's voice again.
"Boat train a quarter of an hour late, sir."
"Be on the platform," Benskin ordered.
He laid down the receiver. Houlden was perplexed.
"What's that about the boat train?" he enquired. "No one who arrives by it could have had a hand in this job,"
"Quite so," Benskin agreed thoughtfully, "and yet I can't get it out of my mind that something may happen in connection with the arrival of Mr. Gilmott and Senor Sacrosta from the Continent this afternoon."
WITH his coat collar turned up to his chin and his hat pushed over his eyes, Benskin, from the shelter of the bookstall, some distance away from the main platform, watched the thoroughfare devoted to vehicles awaiting the arrival of the Continental train. There were a dozen or more cars and a few taxicabs with their flags down. The report as to their occupants had already been brought to him by Hannaford, who was lounging by the kerb. Suddenly a light flashed into his eyes and he drew a little farther back into the shelter of the bookstall. A car driven by a chauffeur in plain livery had pulled up by the side of the arrival platform. There were two kit bags and a trunk upon the top. Benskin stepped cautiously out of the shelter of the bookstall, raised his hand and dropped it again. A moment later Hannaford was turning over the magazines by his side.
"Two passengers inside," he announced. "One middle-aged, well-dressed—heavy fur coat—good-looking, wearing a monocle, smoking a cigarette; the other, shorter, dark, horn-rimmed spectacles, looks like a foreigner. The first man is reading the evening paper, but the other is looking out of the back window all the time, watching for the train."
Even as they were talking, a taxicab, also with luggage on the roof, drove up the broad-way and took its place behind the car. In response to a glance from Benskin, Hannaford hurried off, only to return a few minutes later, looking distinctly puzzled.
"Queer thing, sir," he reported, "there's a middle-aged gentleman and a small dark man in the taxicab too. They're all muffled up so that one can't see their faces.... Train's coming in, sir."
There was the usual stir upon the crowded platform. Porters were abandoning their listless attitudes and standing to attention. The little groups of people waiting to receive friends changed their positions restlessly. The long train, its engine sobbing, came stealing into the station. Benskin, however, scarcely glanced in its direction, nor did he take any further notice of the car and the waiting taxicab. He strolled along to the automobile which had brought him from Scotland Yard and stepped in, followed by Hannaford.
"Milan Hotel," he directed.
A DISTINGUISHED-LOOKING new arrival, wrapped in a heavy fur coat, leaned over the desk of the reception office in the Milan. Hotel.
"You have rooms for me, I believe," he said, "Mr. Paul Gilmott, and my secretary, Mr. Sacrosta. They were engaged by my London agents."
The clerk smiled courteously.
"Quite right, sir. You have suite Number eighty-nine in the Court, and your secretary Number eighty-five. If you will step across with me, I will show you the rooms."
He lifted the flap and stepped outside. On their progress towards the swing doors, the gentleman who had announced himself as Mr. Paul Gilmott paused and surveyed the crowded lounge with the air of one seeking for a possible acquaintance. His eyes rested for a moment upon the distant corner where Benskin was seated, but without apparently taking particular note of him. Outside, in the courtyard, however, he leaned for a moment through the window of a taxicab which had just driven up. If a word was spoken, it was no more than a word. Afterwards he followed the reception clerk and his secretary into the entrance to the Court. Benskin sprang to his feet and kicked viciously at the leg of a chair near which he was standing.
"Hannaford," he muttered, "I shall never make a detective as long as I live. When the critical time comes, I always do the wrong thing. Quick!"
They crossed the floor to the exit with almost flying footsteps. A taxicab was just turning out of the yard—the taxicab which had drawn up a few minutes before laden with luggage, as though its occupants had meant to descend. Benskin threw himself into the police car which was waiting and gave a word or two of directions to the man upon the box.
"It's all right," he exclaimed, with a little sigh of relief. "Nevertheless, I was a damned fool."
Half an hour later the Sub-Commissioner pushed open the saloon-bar door of a small public house on the outskirts of Bermondsey. Benskin, who was awaiting him, passed a whisky and soda across the oilcloth topped table.
"Well, I'm up to time, but it was pretty strenuous work," the former remarked.
"Have you got the men posted, sir?" Benskin asked.
"Forty of them. Mind you, too, we haven't kept the Gonzales wharf and warehouse under observation all this time without finding out something. There were half a dozen trap-holes there, at least. They are every one blocked by this time, and the river police are out all the way to Gravesend. The Juanita's lying in dock, getting up steam. What brought you on this scent? We want to give the men another five minutes."
"I'll tell you," Benskin explained. "I'm perfectly certain Matthew's original idea was to arrive at the Milan as though he'd come by the boat train and take the rooms which had been engaged for him. What his next move would have been I can't say, but the getting in and out of the big hotels is always easy. With his usual thoroughness he took the most meticulous precautions. Two cars arrived at the Milan, one with the real Matthew, and, I think, Vanderleyde, and the other with the imitation Matthew, who was to arrive first and make sure that the coast was clear. If the first two had reported nothing suspicious, they would have changed places at some convenient time, and the two were so much alike that no one would ever have noticed. Unfortunately I made one of my usual blunders. I wasn't quite out of sight in the lounge and the imitation Matthew must have seen me, although he never gave a sign. He just whispered a word through the window of the taxi and off it went. I followed as far as here. Then, when I knew where they were going, I crept into hiding and telephoned to you."
"This looks like the end of things," Major Houlden said gravely. "We are holding Gilmott and his secretary at the Milan, but there's no doubt as to the real man. He can't get away this time. We've got him cornered, but it means a bad job for some of us."
"We're going through with it," Benskin declared. "He can't kill forty or fifty of us, Major. I'm ready to be one of the first and I'm pretty certain there are plenty of our men who won't funk it. It's not your job, you know, sir. You've got to direct proceedings, but to make arrests doesn't come within your province."
The Sub-Commissioner smiled.
"We'll see," he said. "Ready?"
"Quite," was the eager reply.
They drove almost in silence to Riverside Street and down that dingy thoroughfare to the end. On the left, the gates leading to the warehouses were open, and in the little crowd of loiterers both men recognised familiar faces. The gates opening out on to the wharf, however, were locked. Benskin shook them impatiently. One of the apparent loiterers from the yard hurried up, his hand upon the shoulder of a surly-looking man.
"This is the watchman, sir," he announced. "I found him trying to clear off with the keys in his pocket."
"Open these gates," Major Houlden directed.
The man scowled at him.
"Who might you be, giving me orders?" he demanded. "Them gates lead on to the Gonzales wharf and I've had strict orders to lock them and keep them locked."
"I'm a Sub-Commissioner of Scotland Yard," was the curt reply, "Open these gates without a second's hesitation or you'll find yourself in trouble."
The man obeyed but his expression was still lowering and truculent.
"There'll be trouble enough for all of yer before long," he muttered. "There they go and I hope you'll like what yer find."
A patrol wagon containing half a dozen plainclothes men had pulled up behind the police car. The Sub-Commissioner glanced them over.
"All got your automatics ready?" he asked.
There was a murmur of assent. They were six very grim and determined-looking men.
"Come along then. We're going to board this steamer. It's Matthew we're after. We've got every loophole landwards watched but he got away from us once by the river."
"He won't do it this time, sir," Benskin declared cheerfully, pointing to a long, curiously-shaped boat some thirty or forty yards distant. "That's the Tower Bridge police barge and they've got a forty horse-power Diesel engine."
"This way then," the Sub-Commissioner directed.
They filed out on to the cobbled pavement of the wharf and made their way along towards the side of the steamer. For the time of year and the locality, it was a fairly clear evening. There were a few drifting clouds of mist, but the sky-signs on the opposite side of the river were all plainly visible, as well as the lights from passing boats. The tide was low, and there was very little traffic, although every now and then there was the usual scream of tugs passing underneath the bridge. The Sub-Commissioner, with Benskin by his side, walked along the wharf until they reached about midships of the steamer. There was no gangway plank down and the whole of the deck seemed to be in darkness. The portholes below, however, were all brilliantly illuminated.
"Juanita ahoy!" the Sub-Commissioner hailed.
There was silence for a moment. Then a sailor slouched over from the bows of the vessel. He was an untidy-looking person and he spoke with a strong foreign accent.
"What do you want?" he demanded. "No one allowed on board."
"Throw over the gangway," the Sub-Commissioner ordered sharply. "The police are coming on board."
The head and shoulders of a man suddenly appeared in the companionway. The little group gazed at him breathlessly. He was tall, with dark hair flecked with grey, a clean-shaven face, keen eyes, and with that strange, upward curve of the mouth which Benskin recognised in a moment.
"Visitors!" he observed. "What might be your business?"
"You, Matthew," Houlden answered sternly. "Tell your men to throw across a gangway. We are coming on board."
"All of you?"
"All of us here, and as many more as are necessary. The game's up, Matthew, and let me warn you that you've done enough mischief in this world. It won't do you any good in the end to make our task more difficult."
Matthew made no direct response. He glanced at Benskin.
"My friend Benskin is in at the death, I see," he remarked. "A persistent little devil, for all his blunders. Who's coming after the Crown Jewels?"
"I am, for one," the Sub-Commissioner told him.
"You will find me," Matthew said courteously, "in the end cabin on the port side. I will receive my friend, Mr. Benskin. I warn you that no one else had better attempt to approach me. Throw across a gangway," he ordered, turning towards the sailor who was lingering in the background. "Au revoir, gentlemen."
He disappeared. In a moment or two, a gangway was lowered and they all trooped on to the deck. Houlden laid his hand upon Benskin's arm.
"Look here, Benskin," he said, "you and I know well enough that Matthew means to get you. You're under orders from your superior officer. Burton is going to make the arrest."
Benskin's expression was a study in distress.
"But, Major," he begged—"think, sir! If Matthew really wants me, we know what he will do to any one else. Burton's a married man too. Let me take my chance, sir. I've worked hard enough for it."
The Sub-Commissioner's grip was like a vise upon his shoulder.
He made a sign to Burton and the man stepped forward. He had an automatic in his right hand.
"I'll get him all right, sir," he promised. "End cabin on the port side. I'm to shoot if I must."
"Shoot to save your own life."
The man descended the six steps which led to the long passage. The others crowded round the well-like opening, but Houlden waved them as far back as possible. The passage was lit by two electric overhead bulbs and they could just see Burton stepping quietly but firmly along. When he was within about a dozen paces of the end cabin, the door of it opened, a stream of light flashed out, and Matthew appeared.
"Hands up!" Burton shouted—but too late.
He had no chance to pull the trigger of his own automatic. Matthew had shot upon sight. Burton went spinning round and then collapsed. There was a pent-up murmur of anger from the crouching men upon the stairs.
"Why send me the wrong man?" Matthew drawled. "I'm waiting here for Benskin."
One of the men half raised his automatic but the Sub-Commissioner brushed it on one side.
"We've got to take him alive, if we can," he insisted. "Henshaw."
"Get on to the dock and see if it is possible for him to escape through his porthole."
The man obeyed orders, returning in a very few moments.
"Absolutely impossible, sir," he reported. "A boy couldn't squeeze through. Besides which, there are curved bars."
Major Houlden nodded.
"Well, we've got him sooner or later then," he said. "Poor Burton, I wonder if it's any use—"
"We'll fetch him, sir," Henshaw interrupted. "If he shoots, he shoots."
Two of them crept cautiously along the passage and dragged the prostrate figure to the foot of the steps. Houlden made a brief examination, after which he rose to his feet.
"No good," he pronounced. "He's got it right through the heart, poor fellow. Matthew means to carry to the grave his boast that he never had to shoot twice."
"You'd better let me go now, sir," Benskin begged.
The Sub-Commissioner shook his head.
"Don't you see it would be simply murder?" he pointed out. "Matthew means having you before he's taken. He's always sworn it. You're brave enough, I know, Benskin, but you're no match for him with a gun. He's got the advantage of cover, too. You'd be a dead man before you could get your finger on the trigger."
"Let me try, sir," Henshaw intervened once more. "If I could get as far as Burton did, I might slip into the next cabin and hide for a few minutes. There'd be just a chance then of getting him unawares."
"Not a bad idea," Major Houlden acknowledged. "Try it, Henshaw."
The first part of the scheme succeeded well enough. Henshaw took off his boots on deck, and, moving swiftly and silently, reached the shelter of the next cabin to Matthew's and noiselessly disappeared. There was a brief pause. Once or twice the little group of men—stern and unnaturally pale they seemed in the flickering light—saw the door tremble. Henshaw was evidently on the alert inside, ready the moment Matthew gave any indication of his presence, to spring out.
"It's a great idea," the Sub-Commissioner whispered. "Henshaw is as strong as a lion and quick too. He might get him if he comes out again to parley."
They waited in agonised silence through minutes which seemed like hours. One or two of the crew had appeared and had been standing curiously around, but at the Sub-Commissioner's orders, they had retired below. The deck was deserted, except where the seven men were crouching by the companionway. Suddenly there was the sound of a muffled revolver shot from the cabin into which Henshaw had disappeared. Henshaw himself staggered out a moment later, blood streaming down his face.
"He got me over the partition," he gasped. "I'm in."
He swayed helplessly and collapsed upon the floor. At that moment, the door of the far cabin opened and Matthew stood there in the full light. The foremost of the police, who was a brother-in-law of Henshaw, raised his gun, but again the Sub-Commissioner struck it down.
"Why waste time and your perfectly good policemen like this?" Matthew asked, a little wearily. "You can starve me, perhaps, in a matter of four or five days, or you might get a quick shot in, when I come out, it is true; otherwise, you haven't a chance. I am waiting for Benskin."
Then Benskin committed the first act of insubordination of his official life. He slipped down the stairs before any one could prevent him and he walked along the carpeted way with his automatic in his right hand and a pair of handcuffs in his left.
"I'm coming, Matthew," he called out. "Get your wrists ready."
"Sensible little man," Matthew approved. "Be careful of that gun, though. It might go off the way you're swinging it about. This way, please."
"Benskin, come back," the Sub-Commissioner shouted.
Benskin, however, was suffering from a sudden fit of deafness. It was perhaps in his own mind the moment of his life. He was scarcely conscious of the fact that his feet were touching the ground. He walked without fear or any apparent consciousness of danger and he followed Matthew into the little cabin without hesitation.
"Put up your hands!" he ordered, as soon as he had crossed the threshold.
"All in good time," the other replied good-humouredly, "and for heaven's sake, put your gun away. Your business is to take me alive. You can't shoot me, because you know perfectly well that I could have shot you coming along the passage. Sit down opposite me there," he invited, with a sudden change of tone. "I have something to say to you before we finish."
"I'll stand." Benskin replied firmly. "Get it over quickly."
"I suppose you're wondering," Matthew went on, "why I'm taking this so quietly. I'll tell you. I've never been defeated before, but I recognise defeat when it comes. Either I have been getting less clever lately, or you are more subtle. This time you have outmanoeuvred me, although I thought I had covered every contingency. Excuse me."
His long arm shot out with incredible swiftness. He locked the door before Benskin could stop him.
"A precautionary measure only," he explained. "I don't wish you to communicate with those others, you see, and I don't want one of them stealing down to break into our last few words together. Benskin, do you know what that is?"
He pointed to a brown oak box, with the face of a clock, of the persistent ticking from which Benskin had been conscious since his entrance into the room.
"It looks like a clock."
"It does indeed," Matthew agreed. "It has every appearance of being a clock. Yet, let me assure you that it is nothing of the sort. It is a class of article which has gone out of fashion a good deal, although they were used very effectually for time-explosions during the War. That is the very newest form of infernal machine. Can you see the time by it, Mr. Benskin? The light is a little in my eyes."
"It appears to be ten minutes to six."
"So near the hour!" Matthew murmured. "I had no idea. That little piece of mechanism, Benskin—you can see the wires running down there—has been my plaything for some time. Its presence on board this ship is why I always determined that if at any time I should find myself cornered, it should be here that I would face defeat. It also seemed to me to be a pleasant idea," he went on, "to share my last moments with as many of my persecutors as possible. You see I am not going to kill you and you are not going to kill me, nor are you going to make any use of those very ugly handcuffs. I have been a criminal now for some twenty-two years," he concluded reflectively, "and during all that time no handcuff has ever touched my wrist, no policeman's pudgy fingers have ever rested upon my arm. A good record, Benskin. Forgive me!"
With another movement of amazing swiftness—it seemed that he must have been watching his opportunity all the time—he half sprang across the table, seized his visitor's arm, and wrenched the automatic from his hand. He laid it carefully upon the mantelpiece.
"Forgive me," he begged apologetically—"I know, of course, that you wouldn't shoot me when I myself am unarmed—but it might have occurred to you to wound me, unbolt the door, and warn that nice Sub-Commissioner of yours, whom I should hate to have out of the party. If I was a little rough, I am sorry. I had to be prepared against such a catastrophe."
"Look here," Benskin broke in, "do you mind letting me speak for a moment? I deserve to be blown into pieces for letting you take my gun away like that, but there's no need to rub it in. Listen!"
"I'm all attention," Matthew assured him, "but you will watch the clock, won't you, for we have barely five minutes left."
"Long enough," his companion declared. "What I want to say is this: For the last few months it is I, and I only, who have been on your track. These others knew little about you and cared less. It was I who swore that I was going to bring you to justice. I've given up all my other work for it, thought of nothing else, dreamed of nothing else. It was I who planned to-day's coup."
"Quite your best effort," Matthew murmured.
"Oh, chuck it!" the other insisted angrily. "I am tired of your cheap cynicism. Listen to me. The end of this matter is between us two and us two only. Here I am. I'm not afraid."
He selected a cigarette from a box on the table and lit it with steady fingers.
"You and I will sit opposite one another at this table," he continued, "and hear the clock strike six together. Only—just let me call out one word of warning to the others and have them clear off. There's your crew too."
Matthew shook his head.
"My crew had orders to go off duty at ten minutes to six," he confided. "Didn't you hear them clambering down the gangway just now? Let us sit opposite one another by all means, Mr. Benskin, as we are doing now, but when we hear that clock strike—gracious, only a minute more!—I shall like to feel that our friends up there are getting the surprise of their lives. I could almost smile when I think of your pompous Sub-Commissioner, and as to his plain-clothes policemen, I hate the whole brood. You've never seen the effect of a high-powered bomb, I suppose? There won't be a stick left of the ship, and they won't be able to identify a single one of us. The Buckingham Palace jewels—they are all in that drawer, by the by—will probably descend in a charred shower somewhere about Ludgate Hill."
He sank into the opposite chair. He was nearest the door and Benskin realised with a pang that there was no earthly way of communicating with the men on the stairs. His eyes strayed to the clock. The long hand was creeping on to the black line of six. There was a little whirr.
"Our time has come, Benskin," Matthew announced, smiling across at him. "Can you hear anything?"
The first note of the hour struck and from somewhere down below came a curious whirring sound. Benskin, with his arms folded, sat looking steadily across the table. He could see Matthew's face—nothing else in the world—the mocking lips, the clear eyes, with their splendid and yet inhuman light. The clock struck—one, two, three, four, five, six—once more the whirring and then silence. Matthew rose to his feet and his hands strayed towards the mantelpiece.
"My little friend," he said, "I congratulate you. You have saved your own life and the lives of a few of your friends. There is only one quality which appeals to me and that is bravery. If you had flinched, you were a dead man. As it is, my best wishes!"
Benskin's movement was the swiftest he had ever made, but he was too late. Matthew, with the cigarette still between his lips, held the gun to his temples and pulled the trigger twice. He collapsed without a word or a groan onto the table and from there to the floor. Benskin stood looking at him for a moment. Then he crossed the room and unlocked the door.
When the little crowd of excited men rushed into the cabin, they found him on his knees by the side of the dead man. There was no exultation in his face when the Sub-Commissioner grasped him by his hand.
"He cheated me after all, sir," he muttered tonelessly.
THE Sub-Commissioner, welcoming Benskin after his month's leave of absence, heard the news with dismay.
"But, my dear fellow," he protested, "I have some most interesting work waiting for you. You're a young man and very much in favour. To resign just at the beginning of your career seems absurd."
"There will never be another Matthew, sir," Benskin replied, "and if there were, I am not at all sure that I should want to go after him. Besides, I've come to the conclusion that I should never make a first-class detective."
"You're a first-class fisherman," Lady Muriel murmured, "and you're much better on a horse that I ever dared to hope."
Major Houlden looked from one to the other.
"Where are you going to live, Benskin?" he asked suspiciously.
"In Ireland," Benskin confessed.
"Quite a good matchmaker, aren't you, Major Houlden?" Lady Muriel laughed.